This high-spirited dance is part prank, part street fight. The woman in the flared party dress and the guy in motorcycle-gang attire are twisting and bopping to 1950s rock, but a pugnacious edge keeps creeping into the steps. She sends him spinning over her shoulder. He slings her around with a little too much zeal. During the course of one dipping move, she contrives to kick him — almost accidentally — in the face. Then, as if to salve the injury, she sweetly offers him her handkerchief, which turns out to be daubed with shoe polish.
This dance-scuffle is just one of the diverting spats at the heart of Synetic Theater’s ebullient “Much Ado About Nothing,” directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. The 11th in Synetic’s series of wordless riffs on Shakespeare plays, “Much Ado” is a rollicking pageant of colorful invention, complete with outlaw bikers, Las Vegas showgirls and bumbling sheriffs who might have been airlifted from “The Andy Griffith Show.” The imagery is so buoyantly extravagant, it almost risks becoming unmoored from the source material. But providing a sure tether to the Bard’s original is the relationship between Beatrice (Irina Tsikurishvili, also the show’s choreographer) and Benedick (Ben Cunis), whose mutual hostility can’t hide a magnetic attraction.
The duo progresses from feuding to wooing amid the revelry of mid-century Las Vegas. Beatrice’s uncle Leonato is a cigar-chomping casino mogul (Peter Pereyra) whose establishment is one day swarmed by the biker gang led by Don Pedro (Philip Fletcher). The gang’s members include Benedick and Claudio (Scott Brown), who soon falls for Leonato’s daughter Hero (Emily Whitworth). Also in the gang’s ranks is Don John (Dallas Tolentino), a scheming druggie who nearly manages to scuttle Claudio’s marriage plans, until his plot is thwarted by the sheriff Dogberry (Vato Tsikurishvili) and his maladroit but zealous deputies.
All of this unfolds at a rapid-fire pace that allots just enough time for the many splendid visual effects to register. Daniel Pinha’s casino set — crimson staircases, tinsel curtain — sometimes becomes a showcase for exuberantly hoofin’ bobby-soxers, or fan-wielding showgirls in headdresses and spangled bikinis. (Kendra Rai designed the costumes. Brittany Diliberto’s rich lighting adds to the atmosphere of sin and glitz.) At one point, the casino becomes a track for racing motorcycles,whose headlights glare ominously through gathered shadows.
The visual flair is matched by the cheerfully pastiche-y musical score, which nods to the music of Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker, Elvis Presley and other period greats. During the first big reveal of Leonato’s casino, a repetitive hook slyly evokes “Money” by Pink Floyd. (Konstantine Lortkipanidze is sound editor and resident composer; Irakli Kavsadze music directs, and Thomas Sowers designed the sound.)
Of course, in this “Much Ado,” most of the gambling is for love, not money. The expressive Tsikurishvili and Cunis bring piquancy and humor to Beatrice and Benedick’s drawn-out emotional wager. At one point, the two antagonists play a game of strip poker that leaves Benedick standing awkwardly in his boxers; you can see the heatedness of the match — and Beatrice’s relish at her win — in the definition and momentum of the actors’ gestures.
Cunis is particularly good at exposing his character’s romantic-softie side. When his friends play their trick on him, forcing him to acknowledge his feelings for his longtime antagonist, this Benedick’s face is endearingly swamped by giddiness, bashfulness and sentiment.
Other fine turns include Pereyra’s swaggering but avuncular Leonato and Brown’s Claudio, who segues from starry-eyed infatuation to a cold anger that makes the breakup-at-the-altar scene particularly dramatic. With their comically serious miens and highly acrobatic slapstick, the bumbling Dogberry and deputies (including Zana Gankhuyag) steal pretty much every scene they enter.
Mention might also be made of Justin J. Bell’s amiably imposing Friar Francis: In yet another testament to this production’s ample wit, this cleric delivers a surprising sight gag in the story’s final moments.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Based on William Shakespeare’s play. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili; props master, Kasey Hendricks; adaptor, Nathan Weinberger; fight choreographer, Ben Cunis. With Kathy Gordon; Pasquale Guiducci; Tori Bertocci; Janine Baumgardner, Sharisse Taylor and Eliza Smith. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Tickets: $15-65. Through March 22 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.synetictheater.org.