Beatrice (Amy Acker under the counter to the right) eavesdrops on her cousin Hero (Jillian Morgese, center) and their loyal housemaid Ursula (Emma Bates, left) lamenting how Beatrice’s verbal sparring partner Benedick is pining away from love for her in Joss Whedon’s merry but subdued and only mildly romantic updating of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
From the one-act play Dark Lady of the Sonnets by George Bernard Shaw:
Shakespeare (speaking to Queen Elizabeth): Madam: these are the adventures of needy and desperate men that must, to save themselves from perishing of want, give the sillier sort of people what they best like; and what they best like, God knows, is not their own betterment and instruction, as we well see by the example of the churches, which must needs compel men to frequent them, though they be open to all without charge. Only when there is a matter of a murder, or a plot, or a pretty youth in petticoats, or some naughty tale of wantonness, will your subjects pay the great cost of good players and their finery, with a little profit to boot. To prove this I will tell you that I have written two noble and excellent plays setting forth the advancement of women of high nature and fruitful industry even as your Majesty is: the one a skillful physician, the other a sister devoted to good works. I have also stole from a book of idle wanton tales two of the most damnable foolishnesses in the world, in the one of which a woman goeth in man's attire and maketh impudent love to her swain, who pleaseth the groundlings by overthrowing a wrestler; whilst, in the other, one of the same kidney sheweth her wit by saying endless naughtinesses to a gentleman as lewd as herself. I have writ these to save my friends from penury, yet shewing my scorn for such follies and for them that praise them by calling the one As You Like It, meaning that it is not as I like it, and the other Much Ado About Nothing, as it truly is.
William Shakespeare couldn't write a comedy.
Not the way he could write a tragedy or a history.
He could write comedy in the sense he could write a joke or a one-liner, craft a funny scene, dash off some witty banter, create a comic character.
But he couldn't write a comedy in the sense of constructing a play that builds joke upon joke, funny scene after funny scene towards a comical payoff that brings everything together for a big final laugh. A comedy is basically one very long joke with, ideally, a penultimate scene like a punchline and a final scene that’s the topper. And Shakespeare only wrote two that fit the bill and hold together as plays and are funny from start to finish, and he stole both of those practically whole from other writers.
The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew.
As You Like It, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, and The Merry Wives of Windsor have funny bits but they don't tell complete funny stories. They barely tell any stories at all. And Shakespeare doesn't appear to have been much invested in the minimal stories they do tell. Generally, he gives up the effort less than halfway through and lets things drift repetively along until he suddenly decides, as if having checked the time during an early rehearsal, that's enough, let's bring the lovers together and end this nonsense.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labour Lost are barely funny.
The other "comedies", the "problem" comedies---The Merchant of Venice, All's Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure---aren't comedies or they are only in that they're not tragedies. The stage isn't littered with corpses at the end but they're short on yuks and hardly leave us laughing when they're done.
In the comedies of both kinds, the romantic plots and subplots are just the McGuffins that keep the action moving along from gag to gag and pratfall to pratfall or, in the problem comedies, contretemps to contretemps . It's such a given that the lovesick leads will get together in the end and live happily ever after that even they seem to lose interest in their own love affairs.
Portia gives more thought and rhetorical attention to her rejected suitors than she does to Bassanio. Her serious emotional entanglements are with her dead father and Shylock.
Meanwhile, Bassanio is more passionately involved with Antonio than he is with Portia, and critics are still trying to work that one out.
We know Kate and Petruchio are going to tame each other and fall in love. We know Rosalind will eventually sweet-talk Orlando into declaring his affections like a man. We know Viola just has to be patient and it will finally dawn on Orsino why he's so fond of his page boy. We know the two couples in A Midsummer Night's Dream will get themselves sorted out as soon as Puck stops screwing around with them, although does anyone really care if they get it sorted out? For that matter, does anyone even bother to sort out Helena from Hermia and Demetrius from Lysander and who belongs with whom? The only way some directors have found to make them interesting is to have audiences wondering how much of their clothing they're going to lose during their madcap romp through the woods.
There's no suspense because there's nothing at stake for the comedic lovers. Their happily ever afterings are baked into the pie.
Much Ado About Nothing is something else.
The whole world is at stake for Beatrice and Benedick and their winding up happily ever after isn’t a given.
It's more than the case that if they don't get together they'll be lonely and unhappy and they'll miss each other terribly for the rest of their lives, even if they don't know it or won't admit it.
Their hearts will be broken and their lives will be ruined. They each foretell their own fates, although they sound like they're joking. Neither will marry, that is if they don't marry each other. They're made for each other and are better people for each other's company. And they will be worse people and worse than miserable without it.
Benedick will grow increasingly solipsistic, misanthropic, bitter, mean, and solitary. The jolly old bachelor he imagines himself as will be just a grumpy old man boring anybody unlucky enough to take a bar stool next to him with his opinions on young people today. Beatrice will live out her days as a dependent in her uncle's and then when he goes her cousin's house, with no home or family of her own. Cats. We can see her with lots and lots of cats.
I think over the years---over the centuries---many critics and directors have made the mistake of thinking that because, on the surface, Beatrice and Benedick are so witty, so intelligent, so coolly in control of their emotions, and, compared to the couples in the other comedies, so grown up---they're not. They're actually quite immature.---that Much Ado is something more sophisticated, an early comedy of manners, precursing the drawing room comedies of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Noel Coward.
This mistake has often led to the disastrous miscasting of decidedly middle-aged actors as the leads.
But it's not a comedy of manners or any kind of comedy at all.
In fact, about a third of the way in it ceases to be funny. The interloping of the self-important ass of a constable Dogberry and his band of goofball watchmen doesn’t continue the comedy or revive it. They’re comic relief in a story that has turned decidedly sour with the hoped for happy ending suddenly in doubt.
And Beatrice and Benedick are not a pair of middle-aged sophisticates ironically oblivious to their own mild foibles and follies who just need a little time and maybe some gentle prodding by friends to come to their senses and admit what's been obvious to the audience all along.
They are an emotionally mixed up young couple desperately in love pretending to be sophisticates who have already blown their chance once and are now in danger of blowing it again and for good.
Much Ado About Nothing is Shakespeare’s one and only love story.
Comic love story.
Beatrice and Benedick's romance isn’t as powerful as Romeo and Juliet's. Things aren't a matter of life and death for them and we know going in they’re going to get the happy ending those other star-crossed lovers are denied, but the potential for if not tragedy then terrible heartbreak is very real.
Accordingly, a successful production should be romantic, passionate, and sexy.
Josh Whedon's backyard production of Much Ado, starring Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker, supported by a cast drawn from Whedon’s TV and movie stock company, including Firefly’s Nathan Fillion and The Avengers’ Clark Gregg, is amusing, charming, well-acted, wittily directed and cleverly staged, beautifully photographed, and full of good cheer. But it lacks passion, lacks romance, and while it isn't entirely lacking in sex appeal, its sensuality is more biblious than lubricious. Whedon lavishes as much lustful attention on his characters' drinking as on his lovers' lovemaking and there's more skin to glass than skin to skin contact and lips touching liquor than touching other lips. The randiest couple isn't Beatrice and Benedick or even the ingenues Claudio and Hero. It's the villain Don John and a minor character who in the script is a man but here has been transgendered, a move I actually applaud and not just because he now she is played by the leggy, pouty, cornsilk blonde Riki Lindhome.
Acker and Denisof play off each other nicely as Beatrice and Benedick. Fans of Whedon’s Angel will probably get a special kick out of seeing Fred and Wesley going at it like this. They’re bright and lively and clearly amuse each other. They inspire and egg each other on. But they don’t ignite.
This Beatrice and Benedick are well-suited but not perfectly matched, like a couple friends have brought together because "You have so much in common." They clearly like each other. They'd probably have a happy marriage. But there's no fire between them and neither gives us the feeling they would be heartbroken without the other.
Some of this is casting. Some of it is something beyond the control of the actors.
Denisof’s delivery is smart and sharp, but his voice is too reedy for the part. He moves well. I’d like to see him in a more physically demanding role, like Petrucchio. But he does fine with what he’s given and he has two very funny moments of slapstick. His main problem is he’s too mature. I don't mean he's too old. I mean he's all grown up. There are no signs left of the young man he might have been which means there's no way to judge what he might have become and so we can't judge what a loss either might have been to the world. And the ghost of the grumpy old man yet to be has already been exorcised. This Benedict is a completed project. He is what he's going to be, and that's fine. He's not such a bad chap. And he seems perfectly capable of keeping himself amused, occupied, and engaged with the world without Beatrice in his life.
Acker's a bit bland for my taste, about one picked-up pilot from playing one of those too pretty, too smart, too together wives of the doofus husbands in too many sitcoms. And in several scenes she seems to be practicing that mix of tried patience and cynical amusement that passes for wifely affection in those sitcoms on Denisof's Benedict as though she sees their future together as him constantly lying and scheming to get out of some family function to go bowling with the guys and her catching him and enjoying watching him try to squirm his way out of trouble. It's hard to care that that future might not happen.
But Acker's real problem making us worry about Beatrice isn’t her problem. It’s the setting.
I know it's not really supposed to be 21st Century America, but it is 21st Century America and in 21st Century America it's not a catastrophe if an intelligent, upper middle class young woman doesn't get married while still in her twenties or married at all. She can make a life for herself, have a career, buy a home, start a family of her own on her own. In fact, the question is why hasn't she? Why doesn't she have a job? What is she doing hanging around her uncle's house, living off his largesse? Does she have a trust fund? Is she just another idle rich girl? Why should we worry about her future?
The setting and the set are the film’s main attraction but they are also its salient weakness. They work against all three qualities that like I said I think every production of Much Ado needs, romance, passion, and sex. Oh, and one more thing. Joy.
If you’ve seen Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaptation of Much Ado, then you probably still remember with a thrill the jubilance of the opening scene. The young men riding up to the estate, handsome and dashing and smiling in their dirty and dusty uniforms but obviously tired and battleworn, leaping from their saddles while their horses are still in mid-gallop, they’re in that much of a rush to be home, and all the members of the household running out joyfully to greet them.
But you may also remember that Branagh’s movie starts out on an almost sorrowful note, with Emma Thompson’s Beatrice wistfully reading "Sigh no more, ladies" as thought it’s a lament. She’s already showing signs she’s suffering the lonely fate she’ll soon be predicting for herself. As we first see her, up in the tree like that, there’s something of a princess imprisoned in a tower about her. And there’s only one prince she wants to come to her rescue, if only he’d grow up and stop being such a dope about things.
And, as we’re about to discover, Kenneth Branagh’s Benedick is immature and a bit of a dope on account of it. He needs shaping up and there’s only one person who can do that for him.
Still, when he first enters, he arrives as a hero riding to the rescue and our hearts leap for both Beatrice and him.
In Whedon's version, the men arrive home from their "war" in black limos wearing their immaculate "uniforms"---tailored dark business suits. No one rushes out to greet them, because, seriously, who's happy to see a bunch of suits arrive on their doorstep?
Never bodes well.
The set is a problem in another way. Whedon shot the film all on location in one real house, which means he didn’t have a lot of room in which to maneuver. (This results in some shaky handheld camerawork that made Oliver Mannion seasick.) He makes the most of the space he has and, like I said, the directing is witty and the staging clever, but…
It’s a big house full of little rooms and a few large ones broken up into small, intimate spaces. And Whedon’s camera keeps pushing characters into corners and up against the furniture where they’re in danger of knocking over an expensive lamp or a vase or poking someone in the eye with one forgetful, grand, Shakespearean sawing of the air thusly.
There’s no room for anyone to spread out, physically or emotionally. Everyone has to keep themselves reined in and use their indoor voices. Which means no shouts of joy, no cries of rage, no whoops of laughter, and certainly, for anyone who manages to find some privacy for it, no screams of orgasmic delight.
Everyone modulates. Everyone holds it in. The sounds of merriment never rise above a pleasant hum punctuated by the tinkling of ice in glasses.
Even the villains play it low key. They have to. Too easy for your evil scheming to be overheard in this house. But whispering villains don't belong in comedies.
I remember a production of Much Ado on TV when I was a kid starring Kathleen Widdowes and an impossibly young Sam Waterston and one of the scenes that made a big and lasting impression on me involved the villains. When Don John and his henchmen conclude plotting to ruin Hero and Claudio's wedding, Don John throws himself onto the stool of a convient piano and begins to bang out In The Hall of the Mountain King, playing it faster and faster while he and the henchmen laugh their maniacal laughs.
This sort of exuberant, passionate, comic villainy was appropriate to the 1890s setting. This Don John had stepped straight out of a melodrama after tying the heroine to a railroad track. I don't remember if he actually twirled his mustache, but he sported a mustache groomed for twirling.
Whedon’s Don John, played by cast stand-out Sean Maher, is well-suited (pun intended) to his setting. He’s a smooth and careful corporate schemer who goes about the business of ruining lives and taking revenge as if that’s what it is, business. He operates more out of coolly calculated self-interest than out of spite or malice or the sheer fun of playing the villain. He allows himself no real pleasure from his machinations and rewards himself for his success only with the smug satisfaction of having gotten the better of a rival in a business deal.
Ok, this Much Ado was a bit of letdown for me. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t much to enjoy.
Shakespeare couldn’t give a character a single line without also giving him or her a complete and distinctive personality. With his plays, it really is the case that there are no small parts, only small actors. If offering nothing else, a halfway intelligent staging of one of his plays should reveal things about a character or two you’d never given much thought to before. This time out for me it was the three older men.
Reed Diamond plays the benevolent and loyal Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro, with an interesting degree of ambiguity. He is warm-hearted, intelligent, generally forthright, but also quietly vain, jealous of his prerogatives, a bit of a well-meaning bully, and adept at missing the obvious when it suits him. There’s a passive-aggressive quality to him that makes you wonder if Don John might have a good reason for resenting him and plotting against him.
Hero’s doting father and Beatrice’s indulgent uncle, Leonato, is typically cast as an old man and often a practically doddering old man. But in the person of Clark Gregg, Whedon’s Leonato is a man in his prime, still vigorous, engaged with the world, charming to purpose, and sharp---we can guess how he made his money and is still making it, as a canny wheeler-dealer, and possibly not always a scrupulous one. But he’s a man of real affections who enjoys his wealth for the pleasure it gives others, although here that seems to mean never stinting on the booze and always serving the good stuff. His intention is to keep his guests cheerfully soused and in this he’s his own happiest guest.
And Nathan Fillion as Dogberry---“Though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass.”---proves that inside every leading man there’s a character actor waiting to get out. Fillion’s Dogberry seems well-aware that he looks like Nathan Fillion but he also thinks that looking like a TV detective is all it takes to be a detective, although the TV detective he models himself on isn’t Castle but David Caruso’s shades-wearing Horatio Caine. In Dogberry’s mind, he’s living in CSI: Messina.
Fillion is hilariously aided and abetted in this by Tom Lenk as his too admiring assistant detective and would-be mini-me.
As Don John’s untransgendered other henchman, Borachio, Spencer Treat Clark is charismatic and sexy to the degree that I wished Whedon had cast him as Claudio. Claudio is a pill in just about every production of Much Ado, but usually he has a degree of charisma and sex appeal that makes us understand why Hero is attracted to him. Fran Kranz doesn’t have that degree of either. Claudio’s almost impossible to forgive, no matter who’s playing him though, and the only reason we can force ourselves to is that he means the world to Hero even after he humiliates her at the altar. For this to work, however, Hero has to mean a lot, if not the world, to us, and while Jillian Morgese makes a pretty and sweet ingénue, her Hero is mostly a shy cipher.
Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon, screenplay by Whedon, based on the play by William Shakespeare. Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Sean Maher, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, and Nathan Fillion. Rated PG-13. 109 minutes. Now playing in select theaters.