A very focused review of Whedonís Much Ado About Nothing.


Personally, Iíve always believed that itís the lack of stage directions.

Shakespeare, I mean.  Good dialogue with minimal stage directions, allowing endless directorial interpretations through new ages of acting styles.  There will be times when the words clash with the innovative settings, just as there will be times when the words bump up against their modern usage, but I think that the strength of Shakespeare is that it can be done in almost infinite variety.

In Much Ado About Nothing, the politics and relationships are confusing, but not so much that the audience canít push past them.  The conventions of ďproper behaviorĒ are recognizable, if unrealistic in a modern setting (but one must acknowledge that many modern settings adhere to such propriety on the surface while the undercurrents veer into the very naughty).  If one doesnít know that the whole thing is being shot in Southern California (or, as a good movie viewer, accepts it as a stand-in for Italy), who knows what sorts of weirdness goes on in local politics or whether a bride must appear to be ďpureĒ?

Ultimately, itís about the understandability.  Can I (and in this case Iím not some Everyman audience member, just me) follow whatís going on and get drawn in enough to enjoy the play?  Itís Shakespeare, youíre never going to be sucked in by verisimilitude, but I want to be able to know whatís going on and to be minimally distracted.  So hereís my take Ė

SETTING.  Sure, it could be sunny Italy.  It was fascinating, in a very distracting way, to know that this was the directorís very-special house;  the choice of black-and-white minimized that a bit, and one canít fault the production for audience members with TMI.  There were only a few times where it felt like a shot was constrained Ė thatís the genius of doing modern times, you donít have to avoid cars on the street or the golf course next door.  It was pretty.  One odd point, though, was putting honored guests up in a little girlsí room when there are a) obviously more rooms to choose from, and b) no other evidence of children, which might lead darker imaginations into concepts of the Governorís proclivities.  Sorry, you probably wish you hadnít read that.

DIRECTION AND EDITING.  Set Ďem up and let Ďem go.  This does not have the feel of a well-rehearsed stage piece;  it feels like you could guess the folks with the most experience with the piece and with each other.  The constable scenes feel the most controlled, but that might have been the confinement.  Having the cast doing a lot of drinking was an excellent way of ďexplainingĒ their acceptance of situations sober folks would resist.    The look is gorgeous;  digital allows tones for black-and-white that Iíve never seen before, and the look is high-def but softened so that close-ups are not distractingly detailed (or maybe Iím the only one distracted by blotchy skin in other  HD settings).  It also drew some attention away from the background, which is a good thing.  The editing was crisp, if the pace was a bit slow (what can you do?  Even with a cut-down version, itís Shakespeare, what else did Elizabethans have to do with those long evenings?), and I appreciated being able to see the actorsí faces for clues of meaning when the dialogue had gotten away from me.  The opening title, I think, was genius in an ďobviousĒ way.  The opening scene places some interesting backstory (it's hard to pick everything up, though), but I didnít see it play out in the performances Ė the characters donít seem to relate with the intimacy (even a hateful one) that the opening would suggest.

ACTING.  I think Iíll go through the parts actor by actor (using IMDB billing order) for this Ė

Amy Acker.  (Beatrice)  Easily the best of the bunch.  So much depth to the emotion, rhythms that made the rapid-fire dialogue FEEL like actual human responses.  The Empowered Woman in a patriarchal society.  Always got the meaning across, and was able to translate the archaic phrases really well.  The physical comedy felt right, except for the stair fall, but that wasnít her fault Ė you canít play naturalistically and bounce up from a Wile E. Coyote spill without being distracting (to her credit, she tried to show those effects, but that would have necessitated exposed fractures).

Alexis Denisof.  (Benedick)  Fine, but a bit of a lightweight.  Felt more like a performance, but with Benedickís bravado, it is a bit like performing a performance, so that might not be fair.  His exchanges werenít quite as comfortable.  If the character is too pleased with his own cleverness, doing as much broadcasting as talking, thatís fine, but it blurs the distinction between a human thinking stuff up and a performer reciting lines.  If Iím not being clear, watch Cary Grant for an explanation - he's "actually" coming up with that great dialogue on the fly, right-?.   Denisof handled the slapstick parts well.

Nathan Fillion.  (Dogberry)  Terror is an interesting thing;  he has talked about how he tried to back out of this.  But terror can take people into their training, and the performance is Comedy 101:  play it straight and let the play do the heavy lifting.  That is not a criticism, it is a huge and admirable risk to play Shakespeare Comic Relief with this much restraint.  The character fits in well and yet still serves its purpose.  As I understand it, this is a huge departure from how the part is usually played (Michael Keaton was way too Beetlejuicey);  I expect this to influence many future actorsí choices with the role.  People have made comparisons of the police scenes to CSI and Law and Order, even Naked Gun, but it feels less like a derivative and more like a demonstration of how old some of these tropes are.   A major issue is that many of the jokes are malapropisms, which are difficult to pick up - was that a mistake or just an old usage of the word?

Clark Gregg.  (Leonato)  Of all the many-lines actors, his performance was the most strained.  He was working at this mightily, and was fine, an affable presence and understandable for the most part, but very rarely did he seem particularly comfortable.  He related well to the other male parts, but there was no familial connection to his daughter or niece;  the emotions of the most powerful scenes depended upon something that wasnít really there.

Reed Diamond.  (Don Pedro)  He was a revelation.  I donít believe that there was a single line of dialogue that he didnít make crystal-clear.  If this at times required some broadness, it was a tiny measure, just enough, never distracting and never at odds with the other actors.  He played a position of power not with power, but with relaxation, a comfort of invincibility that made his relations to the other characters really work.  I am amazed that he isnít getting singled out in most other reviews.

Fran Kranz.  (Claudio)  Of the major players, the most confused, the most uneven.  Didnít seem to have a clear feel of how his character was supposed to relate to the other characters, has some trouble playing ďsmitten,Ē and overplayed the cuckold.  None of this so much as to really stand out except in retrospect, so Iím making this sound worse than it is. 

Jillian Morgese.  (Hero)  For a pivotal character, she didnít have a lot to do.  Looking back on the performance, itís probably not good that mostly I remember those big dark eyes.  She also didnít do smitten well Ė it is tough, our modern convention acknowledges love-at-first-sight, but itís rarely played as we-must-immediately-be-married kind of love.  For a male, it can shift to a I-must-have-you attitude, which works, but thatís trickier for a female character.

Sean Maher.  (Don John)  Iím not sure if the quietness of his villain is a great acting choice, or whether itís the primary note in his personal repertoire.  At any rate, it worked very well, but his character was most harmed by lack of clarity of his position in the whole thing.  It has been suggested that reading a synopsis of the play is useful before seeing the movie (I didnít);  how the evil brother works into the story is the best detail one would get from that.  It also wasnít entirely clear how the characterís machinations would serve his purpose Ė who was supposed to be getting hurt?  That probably comes down to the lack of a strong connection between Pedro and Claudio.

Spencer Treat Clark.  (Borachio)  Welcome to Shakespeare on the WB.  Itís hard to criticize a performance when you canít understand most of what the actor was saying  -  but thatís a criticism, isnít it?  This is a situation of thereís no there there.

Riki Lindhome.  (Conrade)  A part that would normally be a male, so a co-conspirator picks up gender shift and a lot of sex(?).  Itís tough to know when an addition is legitimately an addition, but there were times when the added activities just completely drew focus from the dialogue.  The part was okay, she was okay, but very cold.  Lines that made sense for a very loyal retainer sometimes still sounded like that, whereas I'd expect a very loyal lover to sound different.

Ashley Johnson.  (Margaret)  She made a lot with limited dialogue but a decent amount of screen time.  It helped, with many characters and a decent number of identically-dressed servants, that she has a very distinctive look and a screen presence.

Emma Bates.  (Ursula)  I know she was the ďotherĒ servant, but beyond that, I have no real recollection of her.

Tom Lenk.  (Verges)  I had not seen evidence that he can act outside of a very limited range.  I didnít see it here, either.  Worked okay as Fillionís foil.

Nick Kocher and Brian McElhaney.  Iíll put the two watchmen together.  Definitely too broad, and not up to the cleverness of the dialogue, their one featured scene was a big clunker.

Joshua Zar.  (Leonatoís Aide)  Too smirky, not easy to understand, kind of distractingly incongruous to the other performances.

Paul Meston.  (Friar Francis)  Like an exchange student from a British version, not just British, but stagey in a way the others were not.

Romy Rosemont.  (The Sexton)  Did a very good job of holding together her one major scene, just the right level of contempt for the constable.

Maurissa Tancharoen.  Just sang the songs, but very, very well.  Kind of a unique prettiness that gives a punch with a few milliseconds of screen time.

OVERALL, this was very accessible and fun.  I recommend the big-screen experience;  I know, it kind of looks like itíll work fine on small screens (and it probably will), but the intimacy actually works better in a theatre.  My wife, who contributed some points to this, feels that it has prepared her to understand the Branagh version.



Copyright 2013, Michael McDarby.

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