Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

d. Joss Whedon, 2012 - in theatre

Since I met my wife, my Shakespeare IQ has gone up 500%, in that I knew next to nothing about Shakespeare 7 or 8 years ago and now I might know maybe 50 things.  I obviously got exposed to the Bard in high school, as most of us do, but it was only Romeo and Juliet and a half-assed attempt at King Lear that I truly witnessed.  Beyond that Julie Taymor's fantastic Titus and... hmm... Dune?  That was Shakespeare right?

Anyway, I've been to the Stratford Festival a half dozen times (the first time was technically the first date with my future wife to see Coriolanus, I believe, starring Colm Feore), and we've watched a couple of cinematic interpretations of Shakespeare since, a lot of them full-on modernizations, or that old chestnut of keeping the dialogue pure but re-contextualizing the setting. 

What we all know about Shakespeare is that olde-English he wrote in is quite difficult to penetrate without some level of study. Like any dialect one needs to attune their ear, but even still it's a challenge as some words come off as gibberish and others don't mean the same thing anymore.  What I've discovered is that it's the performers, not the setting or the props, but the individual actors who make all the difference.  It's up to these actors, whether on stage or on screen, to intellectually understand the material and be able to convey, both through physical presence and verbal inflection, the meaning of the words, when they really don't make sense otherwise.

When Joss Whedon -- beloved nerd demi-god and creator of the geek gospel such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, not to mention writer-director of Marvel's The Avengers --  brought together a group of his loyal acting familiars to his home to stage a production of Much Ado About Nothing over 12 days, there was a definite cry of "whaaaa?" from both geek circles and the theatre crowd.  It's not that anyone doubted that Whedon couldn't wrangle an ensemble (it's what he excels at afterall), but as far as anyone knew, his cast were all, at best, minor TV personalities with few or no major stage credits, and little sense that they would be credible in a, what seemed to be, tossed off Shakespeare production.

But there's a few things going for it, first that Much Ado is perhaps Shakespeare's most accessible story (maybe second only to Romeo and Juliet), secondly that it is a comedy and Whedon has a masterful sense of comedic timing, and thirdly that Whedon has an extensive and intimate familiarity with his cast.  With the latter, that sense of ease and trust and fun all appears on screen.  The cast seems to be having a great time, and they're given the freedom from intricate sets and extensive lighting preparation and makeup and all the usual filmmaking business to explore the words and the characters, investing well within them.  Whedon dispenses with any notion of a period piece, but also scales back the modern elements, allowing for a production liberated from the modern day without ignoring it completely.  The cast explores the grounds of a seemingly palatial estate (though likely smaller than it appears through expert blocking) but the setting never overtakes the performance.

The actors all, save one or two roles, deliver outstanding performances, most notably Amy Acker as Beatrice.  Acker was a prominent figure on Whedon's Buffy spin-off Angel and Dollhouse as well as a villain on CBS's Person of Interest, and she's always appealing to watch, but she commands the screen here and owns the picture.  It's an amazing performance that had me in awe of her ability, and wanting to see more of her as the lead in a production (while I'm happy her role on Person of Interest has been expanded to series regular, she really deserves her own show).  Likewise Fran Kranz is shockingly good, sloughing off his stoner/nervous tech geek ty
pecasting as Claudio and showing an incredible depth as the enamored, then wounded Claudio. 

If there's a weak spot, it's unfortunately in the counterpart to Acker's Beatrice, and that's Angel veteran Alexis Denisof's Benedick.  Of all the actors, Benedick has the most tricky lifting to do, and fumbles it the most often.  His uneven performance doesn't go so far as to ruin the production, and quite often he delivers a bravura physical performance, but of all the cast he has the most difficult time making the language flow naturally and meaningfully.  Even still, his physicality goes a long way (if perhaps too far sometimes) in making it an excellent comedy, but the true comedic heroes are actually the intended comic relief.  Whedon stalwarts Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as the bumbling security team oblivious to their own nature get exactly the desired effect they're supposed to and do so without any hint of irony.  A very Mel Brooks-esque gag is pulled with Fillion's tie appearing awkwardly different in every scene.

Shot in black and white, quickly, cheaply, and largely with hand-held cameras, it's a distinctive picture to get its widest release during summer blockbuster season.  To be honest, though, I enjoyed it more than almost any other major multi-hundred-million-dollar picture this year.  It's a warm, charming, and engaging production of, naturally, a timeless comedy.