Shakespeare would probably have a field day in present day Los Angeles. In more ways than one, no doubt. He would certainly recognize all the human folly he observed and recounted in his plays and poetry over 400 years ago. And roaming as he might across the Los Angeles basin, into the surrounding hills, he would find that folly manifested into some of its gaudiest forms yet known to man. Or perhaps it would look all too familiar to an artist of such insight, even with all the preternaturally taut skin on aged faces, the augmented breasts, all the modern make believe.
Barring the reanimation of Shakespeare in body, we have his work brought to life in contemporary L.A. by another populist entertainer who would seem to strive to bring intelligent entertainment to the masses. This writer and director Joss Whedon. Mr. Whedon has brought the play all the way home, to 21st century, to Los Angeles and to his very residence, filming the proceedings entirely on his Santa Monica estate over 12 days in the fall of 2011.
Mr. Whedon would seem to have no cutting satire of Los Angeles in mind in setting the play in the present day and his present place. Apparently this project, executed secretly while he was in the midst of post-production work on The Avengers, is the product of Shakespeare readings that the writer/director held at his home in years past. That might explain the joy and more significantly the comfort with the material among the cast of this update of Much Ado About Nothing, avoiding the verbal starch that sometimes plagues film versions of the plays. Perhaps the comfort of the surroundings, the familiarity with several actors that have worked on previous Whedon projects and the mere joy of the spoken language all contribute to the pleasure that is Whedon's filmed version of the play.
If Los Angeles is not lampooned in this Much Ado About Nothing, it is an apt nether world in which to set the play. As with A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing concerns itself with an interval between an initial gathering of characters and a wedding to follow some days hence. Mainly, the mischief - amorous and otherwise - that ensues in that interval.
In the hills about L.A., one can well imagine such a decadent retreat from reality, a long night's party into day. Days and days peacefully withdrawn. Whedon and his cinematographer Jay Hunter enhance the sometimes sunny, sometimes languorous mood by the use of natural light. By the tentative sunlight of early morning, we see fog about the hills and it does seem a world removed.
Whedon's is a fairly faithful rendering of the play, but he does take a couple of interesting liberties, most notably the transformation of Conrade (Riki Lindhome), one of the followers of "Bastard Prince " Don John (Sean Maher), into a woman. This lends an Act I exchange between Don John and Conrade a different air than is usually the case, occuring as it does with the former mounted upon the latter. The clothing is still in place, but some steam is definitely added to the scene.
There is also added a silent slink of shame on the part of Benedick (Alexis Denisof) from the room of Beatrice (Amy Acker). We see a man retrieve a couple of his hastily cast aside articles of dress from a small, telling heap of undergarments and other clothes. Beatrice feigns sleep, but is all too aware of Benedick fleeing the scene of crime. This pre-titles sequence is an expansion upon what is merely implied in Act II, scene i, in which Beatrice, responding to the accusation that she has "lost the heart" of Benedick, answers,"Indeed my lord, he lent it me awhile and I gave him use for it--a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice; therefore your grace may well say I have lost it." The brief scene not only makes the verbal sparring to come more meaningful, it sets what will periodically be the dreamy, sensuous mood of this Much Ado About Nothing.
The awkwardness one might expect of an American production of a Shakespeare play - the mere grappling with language, even on the part of good actors - is generally absent from Mr. Whedon's update of the story. Only the initial bringing together of characters seems forced, particular the arrival of the malicious trio of Don John, Conrade and Borachio. Spencer Treat Clark plays the latter, struggling more than most in the cast with the Elizabethan English. However, with his handsome mask of a face, it almost doesn't matter. Clark seems an update of the sort of character James Spader played decades ago, louchely lounging through films like Pretty in Pink and Less Than Zero. The trio arrives in plastic handcuff bands, emerging from black Town Cars as do the male triumvirate of Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), young Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick. In the play, we're told the latter group are late of the wars. Whedon might have translated this to the battles of big business, corporate takeovers and whatnot, but the arrival of all of the above to the estate of Leonato (Clark Gregg, demonstrating a bit more range than one might imagine) is the most ill-fitting piece of artifice in this Much Ado About Nothing.
But with all settling into the sprawling house and initial skirmishes between Beatrice and Benedick out of the way, the masked ball which ensues seems very much fitting to Southern California and one its typically capacious properties of the rich and powerful. Masks, mistaken identity and deception - that self-produced and that maliciously engineered from without - are among the plays major themes. Playing upon a movie set with which he has intimate knowledge, Whedon utilizes well the windows, mirrors and leaded glass of his home to visually expand some of those themes. There's a good bit of slapstick as Benedick and Beatrice, in turn, are duped into resuming their courtship. As the reluctant lovers eavesdrop, they are sent diving behind shrubs and under the Whedon kitchen island.
Whedon generally manages his cast and the changes in tone from broad comedy to pathos with a sure hand. The pathos is born of the play's major contrivance, the false report of the death young Hero (daughter of Leonato), after she was wronged at the altar by Claudio, falling prey to the plotting of that malefactor, Don John. This another of the play's themes - the inconstancy of men and women often not getting the benefit of the doubt in matters of virtue and reputation.
For the most part, there is loose-limbed and enjoyably-felt work throughout the cast. There might not be the precision, the sense of entitled diction that one gets from an accomplished production filled with Royal Shakespeare Company types. But in this case, that seems a virtue. There is freshness, energy and a bit of style in this latest Much Ado About Nothing.
The real revelation here is Amy Acker as the sharp-tongued Beatrice. Ms. Acker is another Whedon regular, but she's had only small parts to this point. Her work in Much Ado About Nothing shows an actress perhaps ready for major work, whether it happens to come along or not. Of course, proud, sometimes bumbling Benedick, put through his paces, comes to regret ever quitting Beatrice's modern chamber. And well he should. No Benedick or Bruce or even Beverly in his or her right mind would leave this Beatrice.
|By this day! She's a fair lady. Amy Acker delighting as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.|