Shakespeare may be universally admired, but not many trust him to be entertaining. Case in point: the Aquila Theatre Company's spy-thriller sendup of "Much Ado About Nothing," which opened Friday at the La Jolla Playhouse. The production, so eager to please with its stylish if overly broad parody of the countless early James Bond-inspired TV shows, takes one of the great prototypes of screwball comedy and makes it seem like it has a screw loose.
What, you might wonder, do Beatrice and Benedick, those bickering wits who'd rather exchange barbs than confess the depth of their romantic feeling for each other, have to do with the "The Avengers" or "The Saint," two of Aquila's acknowledged sources of swinging-'60s hipness? Not much, unless you go along with the notion that the machinations afoot in Shakespeare's play (involving an evil, illegitimate half brother with a grudge, a few bored aristocrats and a set of absurdly suggestible lovers) translate into an espionage spoof, complete with top-secret briefcases, unflattering bowlers and an adorable red Mini Cooper that serves, preposterously, as an undercover car.
It's an approach to Shakespeare that prizes verve over interpretative value, shenanigans over subtlety -- and even, at times, sense. The costumes alone are enough to confuse any newcomer to the world of the play. Director Robert Richmond, who conceived the production along with Aquila Artistic Director Peter Meineck, is certainly within his rights to reimagine "Much Ado" as a secret-agent fantasia. But should the man-wary Beatrice and her cousin Hero, a paragon of virtue whose honor is maligned with near-tragic consequence when her fiance, Claudio, hears the slander, really be prancing about in leather cat suits, go-go boots and candy-colored wigs?
Hard as it is to recover from the general incongruity of clownish figures pantomiming "Get Smart" routines one minute, delivering Shakespearean repartee the next, the staging exhibits many of the praiseworthy attributes of this New York-based company of British and American actors with a widening national reputation.
The action, illustrated with comic-book clarity, proceeds at a rollicking clip. (Much of the protracted humor involving Dogberry, the constable who exposes the villainous plot despite his chronic inability to choose the right word, is drastically cut in Richmond's adaptation.) The jazzy beatnik underscoring, composed by Anthony Cochrane, who also plays Benedick, lends a stirringly modish mood. Most impressive of all, the cast (with one or two exceptions) handles the demands of Shakespearean verse with refreshing fluency and not too much gestural underscoring (the kind so pervasive nowadays that every phallic reference has to be repeatedly illustrated with little-boy hand signals).
If only the ensemble's approach to character were as supple as its diction. Cochrane delivers Benedick's spiky rejoinders to Beatrice with mellifluous ease. Yet he offers no genuine sense of the masculine insecurity that has made him a "profess'd tyrant" to the opposite sex. This is especially disappointing, because Cochrane, who's not your typical dashing Benedick, never establishes himself as anything more than a prematurely middle-aged motormouth, a far less interesting choice even than the standard virile bachelor who doesn't want to be tied down.
Beatrice is one of Shakespeare's indestructible characters, a role whose cynical wisdom and defensive wisecracks reveal just enough scared longing to make it virtually impossible not to root for her. Jessica Boevers, kitted out like Emma Peel in "The Avengers" making a guest appearance on "The Jetsons," manages to succeed to the extent that you want her to realize her heart's latent desire, even if you never quite understand it and wish she reconsider.
The rest of the company ranges from the elegant presence of Kenn Sabberton, the suave prince who initially woos Hero for the nervous Claudio, to the herky-jerky buffoonery of a Don Knotts-channeling Louis Butelli, who plays a trio of characters (the prince's malicious brother, the friar who presides over the aborted wedding ceremony and the language-massacring Dogberry).
Underneath all the strenuous amusement lies an erroneous assumption that a spoonful of Shakespeare needs a gallon of goofy syrup to help it go down. Strange that a company with such a lucid hold on the language doesn't recognize that its esteemed author supplies his own sweetener -- in the form of recognizable human reality. We are encouraged not simply to delight in the lovers' lancing wit but to wonder at its hidden origins.
Aquila merely asks us to laugh at Beatrice and Benedick and their imperfect romantic world; Shakespeare, more fascinatingly, invites us to question the laughter.
'Much Ado About Nothing'
Where: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Ends: Feb. 19
Price: $29 to $58
Contact: (858) 550-1010
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes