Insults fly and puns tumble in the UM drama/dance department’s lively new production of William Shakespeare’s classic comedy Much Ado About Nothing at the Masquer Theatre.
In a twist on Shakespeare’s original Italian setting, director Joe Proctor has relocated the action south of the border to 1840s-era Mexico. While it’s common for directors to relocate the action of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s also a gamble. When done well, the dislocation engages us and sheds new light on an old story. When done poorly, it can drown the play’s original meaning like convenience-store nachos under melted Velveeta. UM’s production sits squarely between the two poles, lending a festive and whimsical Latin element without marring the original story.
The play begins as Don Pedro, the prince, returns home from war with his bastard brother, whom he has just defeated. With him are his two right-hand men: the brave yet naive Claudio and the quick-witted, sardonic Benedick. They stop to visit Don Leonato, a local gentleman who lives with his virtuous daughter Hero and his fiery niece Beatrice.
The plot of Much Ado is woven around two intersecting story lines. First is the story of Beatrice and Benedick, the prickly, quick-witted punsters who may or may not have genuine feelings for one another; the second is the story of Claudio’s and Hero’s romance with its twists and deceptive turns.
The first few acts set up the tension between Beatrice and Benedick as they spar in jousting digs and slanderous puns. These are two people who think that love and marriage are for suckers, that wedlock is an overrated institution latched onto by the weak and deluded. Both are proud and wary, matching their ferocious wits in a tense tango of sexual tension and posturing.
The success or failure of Much Ado hinges on the casting of these two characters. They are the heart of the plot, and in this production that heart beats due to the performances of Ture Carlson as Benedick and Krisanne Markel as Beatrice.
Carlson’s Benedick has just the right mix of arrogance and sensitivity. His thoughtful delivery of Shakespeare’s heady puns makes the lines sparkle. His expansive use of the small theater’s space draws the audience in.
Markel is captivating as the saucy and confident Beatrice. She beams as she considers her love for Benedick and smolders when locked in verbal battle with him.
While technically considered one of Shakespeare’s comedies, Much Ado is a difficult play to classify because of its darker undercurrents, exemplified by Don Pedro’s vanquished brother Don John (T.D. Stephan) and his man Borachio (Zac Thomas), both of whom are convincingly evil as they plot to undo Don Pedro and his companions. You know that behind their rigid smiles lie the sinister hearts of men plotting revenge, and Stephan conveys this well with his rumbling voice and swaggering gait.
The action drags, however, whenever Benedick or Beatrice are offstage, and the audience is left in the unconvincing hands of Claudio and Don Pedro. They just aren’t believable as tough, battle-hardened soldiers, giggling and grab-assing like schoolboys in their attempt to trick Benedick.
Once the third act begins, however, the laughs come quickly on the heels of local constable Dogberry’s entrance. Played masterfully by Mike Kane, Dogberry is an overly officious jackass, both hilarious and lovable with his stiff bearing and buckteeth. Kane’s performance is reminiscent of a young Chevy Chase or Peter Sellers as the malapropisms fly and he bumbles his way into uncovering Don John’s wicked plot. He is assisted by his stereotypical Mexican sidekick Verges (Nick Daue), whose main characteristic is outrageous facial hair.
The original music by Rick Hughes lends just the right amount of Latin flavor to the play’s atmosphere, the guitars and horns especially poignant in the last scene when an impromptu fiesta erupts.
Much Ado About Nothing is a play about perception and trust. The title itself is a play on words, the Elizabethan pronunciation of “nothing” being the same as that of “noting,” alluding to the comedies of mistaken assumptions. The play is preoccupied with characters noting other characters, and most of the problems that arise are due to mistakes in perception, and the characters’ unwillingness to trust others and themselves.
But in trusting the Shakespearian source material, even as the setting is tweaked, UM delivers a performance worth seeing.
Much Ado About Nothing will be performed at 7:30 p.m through March 12 in the Masquer Theatre in UM’s PAR/TV Center. Tickets are $11, or $10 for students and seniors. Call 243-4581 for more information.