For man is a giddy thing,” chirps the curmudgeonly lord Benedick in Act V of Much Ado About Nothing, in a sudden, surprising change of heart. Famous for railing against love, romance, and the institution of marriage, Benedick has been tricked into wedding his equally salty counterpart, Beatrice. In so doing, he captures the bedrock sentiment of Shakespeare’s giddiest comedy — that people are endlessly mutable, transformable, and reformable.
That conceit wasn’t lost on Jonathan Moscone, who directed California Shakespeare Theater’s current production of Much Ado. Moscone made several surprising moves this time around, casting two mature actors — Domenique Lozano and Andy Murray — for the roles of Beatrice and Benedick, and a much younger pair to play the other lovers, Claudio and Hero. He also doubles the roles of Don John, the villain, and Dogberry, the comic fool-turned-accidental hero, and has yuckster Danny Scheie play both of them. Most importantly, he bucks the trend by not contemporizing this play. Unlike last year’s Romeo and Juliet and a recent, horror-movie staging of Macbeth, this Much Ado is, if not resolutely Elizabethan, at least resolutely Victorian. The men wear full naval regalia with big boots and epaulets. The women wear bodice gowns and ringlets. They have masked balls. Chamber music plays in the background.
Having an older Beatrice and Benedick might have been Moscone’s bravest choice, and it certainly works here. Lozano, who played Beatrice on Cal Shakes’ stage roughly fifteen years ago, repeats the role with gusto. She’s radiant, flouncing around the stage, gamely dissing her suitor, quick to provide a withering look when necessary. When Hero (Emily Kitchens) and Ursula (Catherine Castellanos) start gossiping about Benedick’s supposed love for Beatrice, Lozano hides in the audience, tiptoeing down rows, squashing herself into an aisle, even taking a man’s seat and forcing him to sit on her lap. For his part, Murray gets laughs with his unfounded blandishments against all things sentimental and gushy — especially when he switches sides.
It’s a fascinating contrast to the much younger Kitchens and her wide-eyed suitor, Nick Childress, who both fail to elicit the same degree of interest or empathy. On a subtextual level, Moscone appears to be saying that older folks might be cranky and jaded, but they come into the game with a more fully-conceived idea of what love is. The younger pair fall in love within about ten minutes of meeting one another (apparently for the second time), just like their counterparts in Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and just about every other Shakespeare play that involves hormonal teens. The implication: They’re not suited for marriage by Act IV. They have to go through a whole process of conflict and reconciliation first.
Thus, an attempt to superimpose some kind of moral compass on a play that otherwise follows its own whims. Indeed, the Bard doesn’t offer adequate explanation for why Don John wants to ruin things for everyone else, or why, when he slanders the innocent Hero, Claudio is so quick to believe him. The original Much Ado was rife with breezy courtships, husky innuendos, and one-liners played for laughs. Lozano and Murray turn it into a real romance. Kitchens and Childress follow suit.
Then there’s Scheie, unquestionably the genius in this production. At a Q&A following last Sunday’s show, a young audience member asked where he got the accent for his two roles. Scheie smirked. “Accent?” he protested. “I had an accent?” In truth, he just has weird intonation — kind of a slower, louder, more nasally version of his real speaking voice. He used it to play the evil Roman emperor who starred in Berkeley Rep’s 2009 production, You, Nero. And he deploys it to great effect here, lisping the word “thither,” over-pronouncing the “nyah nyah” sound in knave, and even getting a laugh with his first line, “I am not a man of many words — but thank you.” Scheie is naturally funny, and capable of turning even the vilest evildoer into an evildoer with a heart of gold. Doubling Don John and Dogberry was an unusual choice, but it works within the frame of the play and leaves time for costume changes.
Much Ado is a hard play to pull off, even though it’s rendered more often than other Shakespearean comedies. For all the alliteration in character names, the script itself is surprisingly denuded of verse. It’s mostly prose, some of it’s non sequitur, and to an outside observer, it seems hard to memorize. Not all character motivations are explained, and the onus is on individual actors to flesh out their parts and fill in the gaps between text. That said, the play also allows for inventive reinterpretations. Moscone’s latest is one of them.