About 50 percent of the time, the Folger Theatre seems to be on to a good thing -- indeed, a snazzy thing -- with its production of "Much Ado About Nothing," which opened last night for a run through March 10.
Director John Neville-Andrews has changed the locale of Shakespeare's comedy from Messina, Italy, to the SS Messina, a posh ocean liner, plowing the waters between America and Europe in the 1930s. Beatrice and Benedick, those sparring lovers, have taken on the silvery, slightly world-weary airs of Noel Coward sophisticates. Dogberry and his bumbling cohorts have been demoted to the lower decks and, as inefficient as ever, make up the ship's crew. Don John, the villain, is now a gangster from Brooklyn, who, far from being intimidated by Shakespeare, imposes "dese, dems and dose" on the dialogue. Meanwhile, in the ship's lounge, a tuxedoed musician coaxes the beguiling strains of Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart from a lacquered piano.
"Much Ado," you see, has been refashioned to reflect such 1930s entertainments as "Anything Goes" and "Private Lives." I'm not sure the approach makes sense down the line -- in fact, it makes no sense at all in some places -- but the immediate visual rewards are incontestable. This is easily the handsomest Shakespearean production the Folger has yet mounted -- a sleek, shiny Art Deco delight from the zebra-skin upholstery of the lounge chairs to the spit-polished brass railings on the deck. By building a turntable into his set, designer William Barclay is able to show us the SS Messina from stem to stern. And a beauty she is.
Costumer John Carver Sullivan follows right in Barclay's wake, giving the Folger cast a wardrobe worthy of the Hollywood studios in their escapist heyday. When it's masque time in "Much Ado," the characters disguise themselves as silver screen stars and dance the latest rhumba. (Beatrice and Benedick have clearly been watching a few Astaire and Rogers films.) For those who were not mired in the harsh realities of the Depression, the 1930s were a glamorous, carefree era, and the Folger is having great fun with the gilded trappings.
Obviously, this is not a production for even semipurists, who will find that Shakespeare's text plays second fiddle to the rich atmosphere. Take the celebrated gulling scenes, for example. In order to give Cupid a gentle shove, Benedick's friends arrange for him to overhear a conversation in which they discuss how madly Beatrice is in love with him. Shortly after, Beatrice's companions spring a similar trick on her. What's funny -- and significant -- here is the psychological transformation: Two headstrong creatures are being led by the nose (and their own vanity) to drop their guard.
But Neville-Andrews' staging emphasizes the gymnastics: Benedick hiding behind an oversized menu, then when the menu is whipped away by a crisp steward, taking refuge under the tablecloth, and finally ending up under a deck chair. A fair amount of human insight is misplaced in the shuffle.
Lively as the production is, it is not always effortless. At times, you have the feeling that parallels are not being drawn as much as they are being forced with a crowbar. Although you would expect the low comedy scenes to lend themselves most willingly to the update, Jim Beard seems to be functioning in particularly low gear as Dogberry. Having him and his ranks (augmented by a mysterious lady stowaway) stumble all over themselves -- and nearly overboard -- doesn't produce notable comic results. Nor can I say this production provides an answer for the sudden about-face of Claudio (Michael Tolaydo), who rejects his lady fair, Hero (Tara Hugo), on the slenderest of evidence. At first, I thought Tolaydo was spinning a promising variation on Harold Lloyd; then, when he got all riled up, I didn't know what he was doing. Furthermore, in this cosmopolitan society, would Hero's presumed infidelity really cause such a ruckus? A blase' shrug seems more like it.
On the other hand, the encounters between Beatrice (Mikel Lambert) and Benedick (Roderick Horn) take on a kind of evanescent wistfulness when they are played out by the ship's railing. The night is filled with stars, the plaintive chords of "Poor Butterfly" are echoing from the lounge, and these two lovers seem both more elegant and vulnerable than usual. Lambert's graceful performance is one of her best, and Horn has a sophisticated ease, even when he's ruffled, that complements her flatteringly. Similarly, Steven Crossley sees Don Pedro as one of those affable bachelors always welcome because they round out a party; his unassuming ways are appealing.
So insinuatingly does pianist Rob Bowman play the music that underscores the action -- sometimes lovingly, sometimes mockingly -- that you may not realize how much of the evening's success is due to him. But he definitely helps the production through those recurring moments when Shakespeare's Messina and the Folger's SS Messina just don't jibe. Speaking of which, how does the nefarious Don John flee the scene once he has sown his mischief? In a lifeboat? Water wings? Or is he, perhaps, a particularly strong swimmer? Just asking, that's all.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. By William Shakespeare. Directed by John Neville-Andrews. Sets, William Barclay; costumes, John Carver Sullivan; lighting, Daniel M. Wagner; musical director, Rob Bowman; choreography, Virginia Freeman. With Tara Hugo, Mikel Lambert, Floyd King, Steven Crossley, Michael Tolaydo, Roderick Horn, Michael Howell, Edward Gero, Jim Beard. At the Folger Theatre through March 10.