Beginning with music that recalls “Hooray for Hollywood,” and ending with a big tap-dance number that serves as a joyous curtain call, director Mark Rucker’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing” at South Coast Rep infuses the Shakespearean comedy with the sensibility and style of a film from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Fast-paced and frothy, this screwball approach works like a charm, delivering a boldly colorful show filled with spirited performances, particularly from Broadway leading man Douglas Sills as Benedick.
It takes a little while for the conceit to kick in, but once it does, the play hums along on a Capra-esque cloud. Rucker’s choices here are tailor-made for the Beatrice and Benedick scenes, where the dueling wits exchange insults belying the sexual tension between them. As always, these are the best scenes in the play, with Nike Doukas and Sills going at it with verve. You know the production is working when Beatrice famously commissions Benedick to violence, and the order — “Kill Claudio” — generates the biggest laugh of the evening, just as it should.
Actually, though, it’s in the tougher material that Rucker’s conception proves particularly useful. It isn’t hard to make Beatrice and Benedick enjoyable — it’s trickier to make the rest of this play come off as more than tedious filler for those characters’ showier turns. The primary plotline here involves the villain, Don John, wreaking havoc by convincing the smitten young lover Claudio (Andrew Heffernan) that his bride-to-be has cuckolded him, causing Claudio and his mentor, John’s brother Don Pedro (Preston Maybank), to humiliate Hero (Julia Coffey) at her nuptials.
It’s potentially serious stuff, and yet Shakespeare arranges for the villainy to be found out before it even happens by a group of rather inept watchmen. We know none of this will come to harm. But many productions treat this all with such earnestness that Beatrice’s call to arms becomes a tragic moment. Rucker’s achievement here is creating a world where the danger is never real — this is all just a fun entanglement, the kind of silly misunderstanding that drove Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant together and apart and together again. That’s just the right tone for this play, and that’s why this concept works.
Joshua Fardon plays the dastardly bastard Don John with a bold straightforwardness — no psychologizing here, just a mustache and a bent for causing trouble. Maybank has the name and bearing right out of ’30s Hollywood, and he’s spot-on as the princely Don Pedro. The rest of the supporting cast serves the sensibility well. The constable Dogberry is the one character who seems to get left out in the cold, with Robert Dorfman deriving inspiration from everyone from the Keystone Kops to Jimmy Durante to Groucho Marx to W.C. Fields, yet never achieving an identity of his own.
Fortunately, Sills doesn’t suffer from this problem. He has a surfeit of stage presence, and even his little throwaway quirks –“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” he sputters –become likable laugh lines. And, as he did with his star-making turn in “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” he makes it all look like he’s having a ball. Doukas has an elegant sassiness that makes Beatrice a proper Hollywood heroine.
Christine Jones’ attractive set is composed of a few downstage steps for people to dance on as they exit and a series of doors in the background decorated with metallic art deco swirls that become purpler and greener, thanks to Christopher Akerlind’s lovely lighting, as the evening advances. Walker Hicklin’s costumes provide plenty of color, although the gray flannel army uniforms look unnecessarily drab and Dogberry’s impeccable suit seems wrong. Dennis McCarthy’s additional music, which borrows heavily from ’30s tunes, adds to the flavor of sophisticated happiness. Overall, this is a clever, highly polished production.