Folger Theatre cranks up the big band sound and dresses Shakespeare in khakis for its World War II-era makeover of "Much Ado About Nothing." What results is an atmospheric if pedestrian updating that adheres to a now-hackneyed formula: retaining Shakespeare's rhyme and meter and leaving the rest to props and wardrobe.
Aside from Kate Eastwood Norris's graceful and accomplished Beatrice -- half of the warring couple that elevates "Much Ado" to an eternally delicious battle of the sexes -- and Jim Zidar's admirably deadpan Dogberry, the cast is sorely tested by the play. The actors are further hamstrung by a conceit that makes only partial sense, one that divides Shakespeare's Italian characters into American officers and British aristocrats, and shifts the scene from Messina to the grounds of an English country home just after peace is declared.
Mostly this affords the director, Nick Hutchison, an opportunity to festoon the play with the accouterments of a recognizable slice of recent history. Even if theatergoers are not that well versed in iambic pentameter, the thinking seems to be, most have been to a war movie. (For some reason, the villain of the piece enters at one point in a gas mask.) Indeed, this production appears to be tailored to the needs of an audience more comfortable with the look of a set than the shape of a speech.
The idea is that in the aftermath of the war, everyone on the estate of Timmy Ray James's Signior Leonato is eager to get back to the softer combat of romance. (Why, though, English gentlemen and American servicemen are addressed with Italian honorifics is never explained.) Norris's Beatrice, an English rose, has her eye on a good-looking Yank in uniform, Benedick (P.J. Sosko). They've long been attracted to each other (his unit must have been stationed nearby), but both are too proud and set in their ways to make the first move. The more bizarre complication has to do with the mischief by the bad guy, Don John (Jim Jorgensen), determined to wreck the nuptials of Benedick's comrade-in-arms Claudio (Dean Alai) with the unfounded accusation that his betrothed, Hero (Tiffany Fillmore), is not the blushing bride she appears to be.
Productions of "Much Ado," especially those transposed to the 20th century, often get tripped up on Claudio's changeability, his hard-to-swallow denunciation of Hero at the altar. Even more difficult to fathom is the revenge that's worked out, wherein Hero's death is faked and a promise exacted from the repentant Claudio to marry Hero's supposed look-alike cousin. It takes an ensemble of some dexterity to work this out in credible ways, and unfortunately, several of Hutchison's actors are not up to the task of making the play's machinations and language their own.
Sosko's soft-edged Benedick, for instance, is no match for Norris's worldly Beatrice. The actor captures Benedick's self-regard, though he makes goo-goo eyes at women in the audience too often. His gibes have no weight; they sort of glance off Beatrice harmlessly. The romantically charged quality of made-for-each-other never has a chance to blossom. Norris's fragile, good-gal countenance, meanwhile, suggests a big heart and a palpable loneliness. It's a much fuller, more thoughtful portrayal. She reveals Beatrice as a woman who needs a guy who can also be a friend.
The set designer, James Kronzer, works with accustomed professionalism: the Folger stage is transformed warmly into the grounds of a Tudor mansion. Kate Turner-Walker comes up with elegant period outfits for Norris, and while Martin Desjardins ably fills the hall with the music of the 1940s, the inclusion of Shakespeare's poetry set to a gospel number seems an odd choice.
Newcomers to Shakespeare may be those most charmed by the you-pick-the-period approach to his work.
Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Nick Hutchison. Lighting, Dan Covey. With Tel Monks, Liz Mamana, Beth Hylton, James Denvil, Patrick Tansor, James Beard, Tryphena Wade. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through Nov. 27 at the Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu.