Tarragon Theatre's Much Ado About Nothing presents a good argument for not leaving a show at the intermission.
After the first half of director Richard Rose's contemporary, Bollywood-inspired version of the Shakespeare comedy, which closes out Tarragon's current season, I was ready to write it off as a well-intended failure.
I was certainly on board with Rose's concept: setting Shakespeare's timeless tale of love and marriage among today's affluent South Asian community in Brampton, Ont. And the production had some lovely touches, such as the opening bharatanatyam dance, led by actress-choreographer Nova Bhattacharya, and Suba Sankaran's classical-Indian arrangement of the lyric "Sigh no more, ladies," translated into Hindi and sung by Tahirih Vejdani. But the comic scenes were weak and strained and most of the acting was unimpressive.
Then came the second part, when the dramatic side of the play kicks in, and suddenly it was like watching a different show. Shakespeare's depiction of a young woman given away in an arranged marriage, and then rejected and shamed at the altar by her husband-to-be when he believes she isn't a virgin, cuts close to the bone when put in the context of lingering South Asian marital traditions. The acting grows stronger as anger and accusations fly between the bride's mortified family and the outraged groom and best man. We're no longer in a Bollywood crowd-pleaser, but a Deepa Mehta film. At that point, Rose's Bard-in-Brampton conceit justifies itself as a relevant interpretation and not just a colourful gimmick.
Rose and his consulting director, the ubiquitous Ravi Jain, have not only updated the Shakespeare play, but also tinkered freely with the characters and the text. Don Pedro, the warrior prince, is now an Anglo-Indian corporate head named Lord Tata (the ever-smirking Kawa Ada), while brothers-in-arms Benedick and Claudio have become his CFO Benedict (Alon Nashman) and protégé Darius (Ali Momen). They're paying a visit, not to the governor of Messina, Leonato, but to the mayor of Brampton, Ranjit (David Adams). Darius falls for the mayor's nubile daughter, Sita (Sarena Parmar), while Benedict finds his Beatrice in Thara (Anusree Roy), Sita's cousin, a verbal sparring partner who is even more of an anti-romantic than he is.
The battle of the sexes between Beatrice and Benedick has always been the play's primary appeal, but here the match is uneven. Roy's Thara/Beatrice, a little Indo-Canadian spitfire, is an acerbic delight, but the usually charming Nashman gives a wan performance. He ends up relying on silly bits of business, rather than wit, to amuse us.
Happily, Nashman finds his feet in the more dramatic second half – and he's not the only one to improve. Adams makes a late but powerful impression as Mayor Ranjit, enraged and distraught when Darius spurns Sita. He's joined by a fiery Ellora Patnaik as Auntie (Leonato's brother Antonio in the original script), who adds some authentic flavour by speaking most of her lines in Hindi. (There are surtitles in English – and in Hindi for the English dialogue. The show is clearly hoping to draw a South Asian audience.)
The broad comedy also gets better – or more ridiculous, if you like – with the appearance of those proto-Keystone Kops, Dogberry and Verges. Dogberry, now Constable Dan Singh, is played by Anand Rajaram as a Punjabi with, weirdly enough, a Newfie accent. What with that anomaly and the constant bad puns on his name (Dan Singh/dancing) made by his Timbit-munching sidekick (John Cleland), Rajaram hardly needs his character's malapropisms to get laughs.
Gugun Deep Singh is almost as funny as the dough-faced henchman to the bad guy, Lord Tata's spiteful half-brother Jovanni. The latter is played by a supercilious, black-clad Salvatore Antonio, whose spicy outbursts of Italian just add to the show's multicultural masala.
Speaking of which, Rose borrows from Bollywood's classic genre-mixing masala style by throwing in a couple of big musical numbers on Michelle Tracey's suburban garden set. He also reveals a hitherto unknown goofy side by turning the play's masked ball into a Halloween costume party in which Momen's Darius comes disguised as a Mutant Ninja Turtle, while Parmar's Sita is dressed as Waldo of Where's Waldo? fame.
There are times in this production when you may be asking, "Where's Shakespeare?" Especially when his prose is cheerfully tampered with. Having words such as "papadum," "patchouli" and "sasquatch" bump up against Elizabethan English is a masala all by itself.
Obviously, this is not a show for Shakespeare snobs. If anything, it resembles the populist approach favoured by Canadian Stage's summertime Shakespeare in High Park. I suspect it might be more successful in that context. But if it manages to bring a more diverse audience to Tarragon – a theatre dominated by old, white patrons – all power to it.
Much Ado About Nothing runs to May 31 (tarragontheatre.com).