Shakespeare purist? Much Ado About Nothing at Vancouver's Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival this summer may not be for you. Everyone else? Well, this production is as merry as the day is long.
Director John Murphy has set the play in a 1959 Italian film studio, where two pairs of actors fall in love. This is not merely a backdrop, but an adaptation of story and script.
In Murphy's version, these happy (and not-so-happy) events do not occur following a return from war – that part of the plot has been eliminated – but the action is sparked by the arrival of a famous film director, Don Pedro (Ian Butcher).
"I pray you, is Signior Mountanto return'd from the wars or no?" becomes "I pray you, is Signior Mountanto return'd from the shoot or no?" (I laughed out loud.)
Don Pedro is visiting the studio run by Leonato (Andrew Wheeler). With his arrival, two movie stars – Beatrice (Amber Lewis) and Benedick (Kevin MacDonald), who have friendly/antagonistic history, are reunited. Despite the disdain for romance and marriage professed by each, the chemistry is immediately palpable.
Don Pedro is also accompanied by Claudio (Julien Galipeau), an up-and-coming actor. Claudio falls for Hero (Parmiss Sehat) – Leonato's daughter and a rising star herself.
Ever the director, Don Pedro recognizes that Beatrice and Benedick would be an excellent match, and hatches a plan to get them together. It will involve some scripting and some acting; he plots to have each overhear a conversation about how the other is in love with them.
But alas all the happiness is ruined by a false report about Hero's infidelity. This treachery is carried out by Don Pedro's sister – a journalist and would-be filmmaker, Dona Johnna (Laara Sadiq) – aided by one of the paparazzi, Borachio (Ben Elliott). (The character of Dona Johnna replaces Don John in the original, Don Pedro's illegitimate brother.) The slander is revealed publicly at the altar, ruining Hero's wedding – and reputation; she becomes tabloid fodder.
But soon another plan is cooked up – and it will reveal the truth.
What a clever, apt adaptation. Shakespeare's story has the right bones – the scheme to unite the couple involves plotting and acting, and false reports are key to the action. So Murphy's movie studio setting and the drama that erupts do not feel like mere modernizing window dressing or at all gimmicky. (The idea came to him after he watched Fellini's La Dolce Vita.)
It also feels regrettably timely – with the roles fake news and sexism play in the action. Leonato believes a man over his own daughter, for instance. And does Don Pedro's success and Dona Johnna's wannabe status have anything to do with their genders?
But above all, the show is tremendous fun. It moves at a whiz-bang pace with spectacular set, lighting, sound and production design – and glorious costumes. I loved how the first act unfolds in black and white – in contrast with the colourful, real backdrop of Vancouver's ocean and mountains.
The actors move around the stage, spinning spotlights and director's chairs in a glorious dance; and the physical comedy is beautifully executed. The scenes where Benedick and Beatrice overhear the planted chit-chat about the other's love for them are delicious – especially Benedick as wig mannequin and boom mic operator. In a dance scene, Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg's choreography has sparks flying amid the cha-cha-chas.
Lewis and MacDonald are both fantastic – spot-on hilarious but also vulnerable and real. Wheeler owns the stage whenever he is on it. The film studio's security guards were good for some easy (if at times verging on cheap) laughs.
In addition to the superb Fellini-esque recorded "soundtrack," Murray Price has composed melodies to accompany verses drawn from an Italian translation of the play; these are performed live by the actors. And there are some very fun nods to the genre (which I would rather not spoil).
The show has a few issues. The romance between Hero and Claudio does not sparkle, and some of the inserted scripting – "sound stage," "producer," "first draft" – stands out so much it clunks. The ever-present cigarettes – which at first help set the 1950s scene where smoking was synonymous with glamour – become excessive and intrusive.
And, perhaps this says more about me than the show, but I did not understand Dona Johnna's motivation for hatching the scheme until I went back and read the program notes.
Still, this show pulls out all the stops and should be a summer blockbuster for Bard. It is a wildly entertaining audience-pleaser with smarts, right down to the Hollywood ending. Due thumbs up.
Much Ado About Nothing is at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver until Sept. 23.