The idea that William Shakespeare's language is formal and difficult comes from the social awkwardness of reading “Romeo and Juliet” aloud in eighth grade English class, but in the right hands, Shakespeare is eternal and elastic. In the case of this radiant new production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” those hands belong to director Joss Whedon.
Shakespeare's “Much Ado About Nothing” is the “patient zero” of romantic comedies, which means the extended garden party at the heart of the story works whether it's set in 16th century Sicily or 21st century Santa Monica, Calif. It scarcely matters that the dialogue is 415 years old — Shakespeare's text comes alive so vividly because Whedon, the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and director of “Marvel's The Avengers,” is a proven master at projecting supernaturalistic banter and interplay. He also has a keen eye for game talent, and his Whedonverse repertory players, especially leads Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, are as merry as the day is long.
This time out, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Benedick (Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz of “The Cabin in the Woods”) show up at the estate of Leonato (Clark Gregg) wearing dark suits instead of tights, but the idea is the same.
Claudio immediately falls for Hero (relative newcomer Jillian Morgese) while Benedick trades barbs with Beatrice (Acker) and tries to deny his attraction before succumbing to her willful charms.
Then, due to the treachery of Don John (Sean Maher), Claudio is convinced that Hero is less than virtuous, but as a later Shakespeare comedy made clear, all's well that ends well.
Whedon shot “Much Ado” in his own Santa Monica home, which undoubtedly adds to the comfort and warmth of the performances, but the real chemistry comes from the fact that nearly everyone in this cast is a veteran of one Whedon production or another.
The chief scene stealer in attendance is Nathan Fillion (“Firefly” and “Serenity”), who plays the pompous constable Dogberry with hilarious charisma, and he is equaled by the sparks generated by Denisof and Acker.
Both are worthy of greater stardom, especially Acker — she needs to be in more lead roles, and her performance as Beatrice shows that the Dallas-born actress is more than ready.
Yes, this is kind of a stunt, but all the best stunts prove points.
In “Much Ado About Nothing,” Whedon reinforces and restates the timelessness of Shakespeare, but he also reinforces and restates his commitment to the actors who did such great work for him on television before “The Avengers” made him a bankable movie asset.
As it turns out, the people who were with him all along are worthy of the best material in the English language.
— George Lang