No Shakespeare comedy depends on spontaneous romantic combustion as crucially as does “Much Ado About Nothing.” Yes, “The Taming of the Shrew’s” Kate and Petruchio must fall desperately in love with a ruckus, and Rosalind has to agonize over Orlando — and “like it.” But the permutations of affectionate loathing that Beatrice and Benedick express for each other on the way to nuptial bliss illuminate the most satisfying and mature vision of attraction in all of Shakespeare’s lighter plays and, perhaps, the darker ones, too.
Beatrice and Benedick are turned on by each other’s brains, a sophisticated definition of sexiness that’s showcased in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s becoming, if overly concept-dependent, new rendition of “Much Ado,” which had its formal opening Sunday night at Sidney Harman Hall. Under Ethan McSweeny’s mostly assured direction, the Beatrice and Benedick of Kathryn Meisle and Derek Smith achieve the goal that eludes some incarnations of this oft-seen work: the notion that this couple, Elizabethan forerunners of Noel Coward’s Amanda and Elyot (and so many other amorous duellists) are predestined mates of the wits as well as the soul.
What worldly bloke with a decent IQ wouldn’t eventually succumb to Meisle’s chicly feline Beatrice? The actress, a late-inning substitution for Veanne Cox, who departed during rehearsals, is an ideal Beatrice: She projects both beauty and a breachable aloofness, an illusion sustained by a playful embrace of the character’s language (and one disarming dip in a very cold fountain). Smith’s Benedick proves to be her fitting partner; a foundation of his portrayal is an endearing given: The more this courtly Benedick mopes and protests and glances back over his shoulder at her, the surer we are that he’s head over heels for his tart-tongued adversary.
“Were they but a week married, they would talk themselves mad,” declares Beatrice’s uncle, Leonato, in a compellingly forceful turn by Adrian Sparks. It’s true: These well-mannered exhibitionists will drive each other crazy and revel in the public fusses they eternally kick up.
With the polish of this high-end comic couple — and at the play’s opposite end, the surefire lunacy of its low-comedy pairing of the addle-pated watchmen Dogberry (Ted van Griethuysen) and Verges (that rascally scene-stealer, Floyd King) — the company’s new “Much Ado” has lots of good things going for it. And in many ways, McSweeny’s handling of this comedy’s buoyant plotting is visually and even conceptually superior to his last effort, a “Merchant of Venice” last season that he transplanted from Italy to Manhattan’s immigrant-filled Lower East Side.
This time, the very specific location and time is Cuba in the 1930s, a setting that retains the sun-baked sensuality of Shakespeare’s Messina and gives the director, composer Steven Cahill and choreographer Marcos Santana opportunities for a few conga-drumming, hip-bouncing fiestas. It also provides set designer Lee Savage with the inspiration for a gorgeous set — the central, open space of Leonato’s hacienda, complete with a weather-worn garden statue of Cupid. The dresses and satin robes that costume designer Clint Ramos drapes on the women of “Much Ado” aptly reflect the sleek tailoring of the period.
Assigning a few of the actors Spanish accents and changing a few words here and there —“Much Ado” now includes references to Havana, pesos, a mantilla and the cha-cha — doesn’t do any harm. Not overly banal, either, is the arrival of Dogberry and his ragtag band of men chanting the well-known Cuban patriotic song “Guantanamera.” (Maybe one verse would have been enough.) But even though two of the other characters in the retinue were originally given the indisputably English names of Hugh Oatcake and George Seacoal, did the director really have to rename them, cringingly, Juan Huevos (Phil Hosford) and Jose Frijoles (Carlos J. Gonzalez)? The joke is coarser than this “Much Ado” deserves, and the glib cultural referencing in general comes across as a little patronizing.
In view of what King is able to do with the role of Dogberry’s sidekick, you’re easily persuaded that the actors don’t need much competition from the textual tinkering. Outfitted as if he were Yosemite Sam and waving an ear trumpet, King plays Verges as a doddering relic of the cane fields, shuffling behind van Griethuysen’s expertly buffoonish Dogberry at a speed of something like 1 / 8 mph.
The rigid attitudes about women’s purity do, on the other hand, translate successfully to the Latin landscape. Aside from Beatrice and Benedick’s contest of wills, what drives the proceedings is the dastardly plot of the malicious Don John (Matthew Saldivar), brother of Don Pedro (a fine David Emerson Toney). He falsely besmirches the honor of Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Kate Hurster) and thus undermines the plans for her marriage to Benedick’s friend Claudio (Ryan Garbayo). The mechanics of the Hero story are respectably dramatized here, even if the forgiveness that Hero so rapidly offers to Claudio after Don John’s plot unravels remains one of those credulity-testing moments for a modern audience.
It’s only right that the bracing focus of the evening’s pleasure is the play’s most remarkable aspect, the intellectually level playing field that Shakespeare came up with for his two main characters. The well-matched Meisle and Smith do Beatrice and Benedick’s verbal tango full justice. And that is certainly something.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Set, Lee Savage; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; music and sound, Steven Cahill; choreography, Marcos Santana; voice and dialects, Ellen O’Brien; literary associate, Drew Lichtenberg. With, Mark Hairston, Bev Appleton, Rachel Spencer Hewitt, Colleen Delany, Lawrence Redmond, Ashley Smith. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Jan. 1 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Visit shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.