William Shakespeare. Was there anything that guy couldn’t do?
As it turns out, the prolific Bard of Avon invented the situation comedy as we know it. Written over 400 years ago, Much Ado About Nothing feels somehow familiar, its characters and their complications echoing everything from The Philadelphia Story to Moonlighting, along with a few million others.
Shakespeare, of course, came first, and no Hollywood hack has ever come close to the clever plotting and gushing waterfalls of poetic dialogue in this and the man’s other comedies.
What worked in the 16th century works now, and director Benjamin T. Ismail has created a modernized Much Ado for American Stage, all gussied up in a beautiful production with a jaw-dropping set, gorgeous costumes and an off-the-charts energy that never once flags. It is very nearly perfect.
American Stage’s Much Ado is presented in the original Shakespearean language (a lot of thees and thous and perchances and verilys). The brilliance of this language is that it flows like orchestrated music, and even when our modern ears aren’t entirely sure what the actors are saying, their words somehow reach us.
Happily, the story, the characters and the situations are by now so universal that the florid and rapid-fire dialogue does not inhibit our understanding and enjoyment of the plot.
Ismail’s version is set in what appears to be Key West, at the end of World War II (the characters, of course, refer to it as Messina, in keeping with the text). Prince Don Pedro, Benedick and Claudio are coming home from serving in the Navy, and the womenfolk are throwing them a terrific party. Plans for the future are being made.
Young Claudio declares his love for Hero, the daughter of Leonato, the governor. They are to be married. But — you guessed it — complications arise.
But Much Ado About Nothing really pivots around the brash, arrogant soldier Benedick and his love/hate relationship with Beatrice, Hero’s tart-tounged cousin. Think Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. You know the drill. Will they or won’t they?
It’s great fun finding out. There's much dancing, and much music (hot jazz and the occasional steel drum) and lots of Hawaiian shirts, print sundresses and pastel-colored set pieces. The set is presented as the front lawn, porch and patio of Leonato’s home.
As the cocksure Benedick, Brock D. Vickers has a wiry intensity and a very fluid physicality that adds much to his comic monologues, which sometimes find him breaking the fourth wall and including the audience in his schemes.
Every bit his equal is Stephanie Gularte, who brings a feline grace to her hard-hearted Beatrice, even as she trades acerbic barbs with her would-be lover.
Gossip (or “noting,” as it was called in Shakespeare’s time, hence the actual meaning of the play’s title) is very nearly the downfall of Claudio and Hero, and in setting things straight for them, Benedick and Beatrice get hilariously wrapped up in backdoor espionage, lies, deceit and some well-intentioned trickery.
The “eavesdropping” scenes, in which both Benedick and Beatrice hide (badly) camouflaged in the shrubbery, listening in on conversations about them, are gut-bustingly funny.
Richard D. Watson appears as Dogberry, the constable, who rounds up the usual suspects (yes, a crime is committed!) accompanied by a deputy called Verges (Juliana Davis, who doubles as Hero’s nurse and confidante). Verges is presented as a doddering, stooped old man with a bushy white mustache.
In Ismail’s Much Ado, Watson plays Dogberry as Barney Fife, shaky but full of false bravado, virtually incompetent. It’s amusing for a while — Watson is a wonderful actor — but during a lengthy scene in Act II, Dogberry and Verges overstay their welcome. In this one shrill scene, Ismail takes the sitcom thing a little too far. Comedies don’t require comic relief, do they?
In the end, however, everybody’s happy — well, except for the bad guys — and Much Ado About Nothing comes to a close with the whole cast onstage, all smiles, doing the jitterbug.
That probably wasn’t in Shakespeare’s original text. Then again…
Bill DeYoung was born in St. Pete and spent the first 22 years of his life here. After a long time as an arts and entertainment journalist at newspapers around Florida (plus one in Savannah, Ga.) he returned to his hometown in 2014. He is the author of Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down and the forthcoming Phil Gernhard, Record Man. Learn more here.