Beatrice & Benedick get fresh

Amy Acker eavesdrops as Beatrice in Joss Whedon’s Shakespeare adaptation.

For reasons utterly baffling to devotees of the Bard of Avon, directors keep coming up with strange ways to spin Shakespeare’s timeless plays in an effort, presumably, to make them seem more “relevant” to contemporary audiences. A certain New York Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest in 1981 comes jarringly to mind, in which Mabou Mines director Lee Breuer had the shipwrecked lords arrive by helicopter, Ariel was a Sumo wrestler and Stephano and Trinculo were done up as W. C. Fields and Mae West. Innovative, perhaps, but to what artistic or emotional purpose?

Shakespeare purists shudder at such excesses, and are naturally wary anytime someone announces a new production that’s not set in the time and place originally conceived by the playwright. That’s not to say that creative license doesn’t sometimes pay off handsomely, making us see very familiar material with a fresh eye. But it seems like most of the recent cinematic Shakespeare remakes in modern settings – especially those that try (horrors!) to “update” his language – have either failed to rationalize their own existence, or been embraced by teen viewers without them ever becoming aware that they’ve just been exposed to some Shakespeare. And if roping in new audiences is a major part of the game plan here, then those adaptations seem kind of pointless.

So it should come as a great relief to Shakespeare-lovers to discover that the newest onscreen interpretation of Much Ado about Nothing – arguably the Bard’s greatest comedy – has not been hopelessly mangled, in spite of the fact that it was made by a director known for comic-book-based superhero blockbusters like The Avengers and cult sci-fi TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Joss Whedon, it appears, actually does care enough for Shakespeare to know when not to meddle overmuch. In fact, he may have a lesson to teach the purists: that the purest way to render these 16th-century plays is not to gussy them up in Tudor ruffs, pantaloons and hoop skirts and deliver them in the Queen’s English, but rather to present them in a familiar-looking setting, acted by normal-looking people who speak the hallowed lines as if that were their normal way of conversing.

Whedon trims some of the text, but he doesn’t try to modernize it. Yet the moment of cognitive dissonance passes almost immediately, as a pack of talented-but-not-super-famous young actors from the director’s usual stable welcomes us to a hard-drinking Southern California house party in contemporary dress – filmed in black-and-white at his own home, on a very modest budget, within a very short timeframe. Shakespeare’s language is allowed to exercise its magic with minimal interference, and astoundingly, it all works. The time flies by, and even my teenage filmgoing companion (who, admittedly, just read Much Ado in high school English class) got nearly all the jokes.

That’s not to say that Whedon does no tinkering; but that takes the form almost exclusively of sight gags that cement the story firmly in modern times, while still seeming all of a piece with the Bard’s sense of humor. For example, as the men of the Watch prepare to depart Duke Leonato’s villa, they discover that they’ve locked themselves out of their squad car. It’s just a quick cutaway, but it reinforces everything that Shakespeare has already told us about these characters, and it makes us laugh even more. Nothing added seems like clutter; it’s a lean and lucid telling of the classic tale.

As great a piece of work as Much Ado is, it presents a director with some significant challenges. Casting is crucial, because a balance must be maintained between the two parallel narrative lines (both of them – interestingly in these times in which we live – hinging on entrapment schemes, one benign in intent and the other malign). Our primary attention must be directed to the exquisitely nasty verbal sparring between the marriage-averse Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof). But danger lies in the fact that the other on-again, off-again couple, Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), can come off as insipid by contrast.

Fortunately, these actors are up to the task, and Whedon’s deft direction and (mostly) unfussy camerawork keeps us engaged in the moment all the way through. Acker and Denisof are not the Shakespeareans that, say, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh were in Branagh’s gorgeous, opulent, sun-drenched 1993 cinematic interpretation of the same play. Their line readings don’t always rise to the level that old hands at Much Ado may have come to expect. But they are both highly adept at physical comedy, and Whedon certainly puts them through their paces, poses and pratfalls.

Sometimes the goofiness gets a little over-the-top in the eavesdropping scenes; but there’s no getting around the fact that this play is a romantic farce. There’s nothing wrong with playing it broad. Yet both Acker and Denisof also manage to be convincing in their more serious scenes; when Beatrice tells Benedick, “Kill Claudio,” we have to believe that she means it, and we do. Best of all, both make it clearer in their physical acting than the author ever did in his dialogue that these two were in love – however deeply in denial – well before they fell for their comrades’ trickery.

Though too tall for all the short jokes to which she is subjected, Morgese makes a dewy-eyed, sympathetic Hero, holding up well in the difficult (for contemporary audiences) scenes in which her father Leonato disowns her. As the moony Claudio, Whedon made a brilliant choice in casting Kranz, a talented comic actor who aced the role of the stoner kid (and closest thing to a hero) in his 2012 slasher-movie spoof Cabin in the Woods.

Clark Gregg, best-known for his turns as Agent Coulson in various Marvel Comics movies, does fine work as Duke Leonato. And Reed Diamond serves up a wily, charming co-conspirator in Don Pedro; I was almost sorry when Beatrice turns down his jesting proposal of marriage with one of her usual quips.

The broadest humor in Much Ado, of course, belongs to Constable Dogberry and the hopelessly inept Watch. Dogberry’s butchery of English vocabulary works best for most Shakespeare purists when he’s cast as an eccentric, slightly senile old fellow; this reviewer absolutely hated Michael Keaton’s bizarre interpretation of the character as a raving psychotic in the Branagh version. Here, Firefly star Nathan Fillion may seem a tad young for the role as traditionally interpreted, but he puts on a bravura performance that had the theater audience gasping with laughter every time he was onscreen. The waggish visual references to contemporary cop shows did not distract from Shakespeare’s narrative in the least – they just grounded his hoary old jokes in the 21st-century setting.

All in all, you can’t go wrong with this movie, whether you’re a Shakespeare neophyte or a devoted keeper of the flame. It’s brisk and breezy, with a sincere affection for its source that never bogs down in an excess of reverence. Methinks the Bard himself wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

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