Photo by Ken HowardIt takes a certain bravado to update Shakespeare. All too often, transporting his script to a different era or genre makes the whole thing come off as blatantly anachronistic. Take, for example, last year's Kenneth Branagh vehicle, Love's Labour's Lost. Revised as a 1930's song-and-dance extravaganza, the film suffered by scrapping chunks of the Bard's text for such perky songs as "I Won't Dance," and to make matters worse, the actors did dance and sing—despite their inability.
Even with that failure still thudding in the ears of Shakespeareophiles, Mark Rucker has opted to place his current production of Much Ado About Nothingin the same era—but in a different genre: Hollywood's screwball comedies. The big difference is that Rucker's idea works.
Rucker doesn't approach things too literally; his vision lies in the parallels between the genres, particularly the volatile love/hate relationships between the male and female leads. Exchanged between such actors as Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn or Irene Dunne, the sexually charged joustings of wit are much akin to those between Much Ado's Benedick and Beatrice, a pair of strong-willed individuals who decry marriage and swear they'd rather be single than made the cuckold. Cast into these feisty roles are Douglas Sills and Nike Douglas; their previous work together produces some powerful chemistry. By far the most entertaining of the two, Sills—recently known for playing the lead in the Broadway and national touring productions of The Scarlet Pimpernel—imbues his character with endearing quirks aplenty, including well-timed, Bugs Bunny-ish "uh-huh, uh-huh"s to indicate his noggin wheels a'churnin.' Unfortunately, Douglas sometimes muffles her lines, throwing away some of the play's cleverest dialogue.
The rest of the characters are well represented, too. The comedy's other lovebirds, Claudio and Hero (played by Andrew Heffernan, who looks but thankfully doesn't act like Matt Damon, and Julia Coffey), bring some needed personality to what can otherwise be bland, albeit dramatic, roles. Revisioned as shady gangster types, villains Don Pedro (Preston Maybank) and Borachio (Michael Louden) are deviously amusing.
With the aid of his first-rate technical crew (Walker Hicklin's shimmering, flowing evening gowns are exquisite), Rucker bolsters his superb ensemble with many fine touches, including having some of the characters engage in archery while playing Cupid to Benedick. And yes, like Branagh, Rucker does throw in some Fred-and-Ginger action, but the brief numbers he employs are performed sparingly and to good effect. No kidding.
Much Ado About Nothing at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through April 1. $28-$49.