“Much Ado About Nothing” is one of Shakespeare’s most nimble comedies, and one of his most intimate. It all takes place at a house party, basically. And it evokes the sweet-sour, but ultimately satisfying, screwball romance of two confirmed singletons as they fight, then finally succumb to, a potent mutual attraction and gift for badinage.
The play can also be something more: an illustration of misogyny and male arrogance. And a demonstration of one man’s willingness to challenge machismo at the behest of a strong woman he adores.
Seattle Shakespeare Company’s new production of “Much Ado About Nothing” doesn’t underscore the later, proto-feminist subtheme. It sticks more to the surface, dressing up the play in glossy 1950s fashion, situating it in a posh casino resort on the French Riviera (in another fab Craig Wollam design) and tanging it up with comic antics and original cocktail jazz excellently supplied by the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (SRJO).
On that score, George Mount’s staging is an inches-deep but attractive and, after some first act sluggishness, diverting outing, spurred by three standout performances that overshadow a few lackluster ones.
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As leading lady Beatrice, Jennifer Lee Taylor is an MGM-style knockout in Doris Black’s stylish costumes — one-piece bathing suit, satiny party frocks and resort togs that Edith Head might have designed for Grace Kelly.
Moreover, Taylor perfects the blithe swank and fanged banter that this fun-loving, whipsmart Beatrice excels at, as she aims to enjoy herself — and also jab at a guy who dumped her.
That would be Benedick, played by Matt Shimkus. As a wisecracking naval officer and pal of his superior, Don Pedro (Jim Gall), Shimkus exerts comic flair too, of a more good ol’ boy stripe. And as he gradually earns back Beatrice’s affections, he matures into a more sincere, fetching fellow.
David Quicksall, one of Seattle Shakespeare Company’s ace character actors, also scores as a bumbling, word-mangling local constable who takes his badge way too seriously. Quicksall goes far out on a mugging limb. But his Dogberry is such a superbly ridiculous idiot, he could get laughs from smacking himself in the head with a flashlight.
The darker doings in the play are much less persuasive here. Nick Rempel is surprisingly wooden as Don Pedro’s alienated, scheming brother Don John. Claudio, who rejects his fiancee, Hero (Brenda Joyner), thanks to Don John’s false aspersions on her virginity, gets a sincere but rather colorless reading from Jay Myers. And as Hero’s father, Leonato, practiced Shakespeare hand Peter Jacobs has an unfortunate spell of over-the-top venting.
But the musical and visual assets of Mount’s interpretation partly compensate. Wollam’s terrace set with its petite canal (of course someone will land in the drink), colonnades and bobbing masts of pleasure boats is well-utlized, and a delight.
And the cool sounds supplied by composer Michael Brockman and the SRJO happily kick off a continuing collaboration with Seattle Shakes. The deliriously joyful music and dance number at the end of this production leave you wanting more where that came from.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org