"Much Ado About Nothing" is one of Shakespeare's best comedies, and has inspired two terrific film adaptations: Kenneth Branagh's in 1993 and Joss Whedon's in 2011. So the challenge for Matthew R. Wilson, who was tapped to direct the current production at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, was how to make it different from all the other versions people have seen.
Wilson set the show in "London, circa 1916-1920," says the program. It was a time when Europe's fizzy fin-de-siècle romanticism ran smack-dab into trench warfare. And that collision is echoed in the play's famous scene where a gaily garbed wedding party dissolves into bitter accusations of infidelity and libel.
But that decade also marked Charlie Chaplin's entry into moving pictures, and Wilson seems most inspired when he's borrowing liberally from the physical slapstick of Chaplin and his silent-movie pioneers. The play's Constable Dogberry and his night watchmen have often been described as the 16th-century equivalent of the Keystone Cops, and Wilson makes that identification quite literal. He dresses up his incompetent guards as London bobbies who can't seem to go three steps without tripping or crashing into something.
Wilson extends this Chaplinesque treatment to the leads as well. When a group of army officers led by Don Pedro (Jose Guzman) take some R&R at the estate of Governor Leonato (Michael Salconi), the younger officer Claudio (Gerrad Alex Taylor) falls in love with Leonato's daughter Hero (Diane Curley), while the officer Benedick (Ron Heneghan) trades insults with Leonato's niece Beatrice (Blythe Coons).
To track those insults as they fly back and forth like a tennis ball is entertaining enough, but Wilson ups the comedy stakes by adding more slapstick. In his most audacious move, the director radically reshuffled the middle of the play. In the original script, Leonato, Don Pedro, and Claudio talk loudly about Beatrice's love for Benedick at the end of Act II, when they know Benedick is hiding nearby. And Hero and Ursula (Molly Moores) do something similar at the beginning of Act III when they know Beatrice is hiding nearby.
Wilson stages the two scenes simultaneously, cutting between one conversation and the other like a film director. And he has Heneghan as Benedick and Coons as Beatrice twist themselves into slapstick pretzels as they try to stay hidden and to stay close enough to hear at the same time. The humor may be broad, but it is effective.
Heneghan and Coons are well-matched combatants in insults but also as charismatic actors. There's a moment when they realize that they love one another; they stare at each other in stunned bewilderment for an extended silent moment that never seems false. A few scenes such as that added some much-needed ballast to all the dizzy comedy.
With a cast of 21 (20 of them non-Equity actors), the surprise is not the few weak links but the strong work turned in by a healthy majority. Heneghan and Coons are the highlights, but Taylor, Curley, Jeff Keogh (as the evil brother Don John), and Scott Alan Small (as the language-mangling Dogberry) also sparkle. This is not Shakespeare at its most profound but very nearly at its most entertaining.
"Much Ado About Nothing" runs through Oct. 11.