Orson Welles didn't know what a can of worms he was opening when his WPA Negro Theatre Project staged his "Voodoo Macbeth" in 1936. By setting the classic in Haiti, with voodoo doctors as the Witches, he single-handedly created what is known as a directorial concept.
Since then directorial concepts--changing the locale or time period of Shakespeare's plays--have become the norm. Sometimes they work (when the concept derives out of the text) and sometimes not (when the concept is pasted on).
Patrick Watkins' concept for California Repertory Company's "Much Ado About Nothing," set in an American Army officers' club in 1942, almost works. In both the play and the setting, Benedick, Don Pedro and Don John are at war. The choice of an officers' club is somewhat cumbersome; perhaps a Pacific island or an Italian village would have been more logical. The club leads Watkins up a few shaky dramaturgical lanes.
After Watkins' thorough and drastic cutting of the text to make room for them, the setting does allow the insertion of numerous performances of contemporary pop music, performed by the various characters, which bolsters the concept but leaves Shakespeare's comedy wanting. And the slangy '40s lyrics sometimes jar next to Shakespeare's Elizabethan language.
Much of Watkins' staging does work in spite of the concept's more illogical ties to the text, and it is often very funny. Nothing could be more appropriate or insightful than making Dogberry (Davis Mejia) and his two henchmen (Matt Gourley, Daniel C. Touris) into MPs. Mejia's Dogberry looks and sounds like the pompous and officious military stereotype that exists in any era, and the trio's deadpan buffoonery is very much in the Shakespeare mode.
Watkins has turned the comedy into something that looks much like those B-movie musicals Hollywood turned out during the war, and the cast obviously relishes what they're doing under Watkins' tight and buoyant guidance.
Even Rex Heuschkel's scenic design--officers' club at the bottom, exploding with Italianate scrolls at the top--fits the movie musical style, and Liz Hubner's costumes are period exact.
Jeff Paul and Doina Roman-Osborn are a charming Benedick and Beatrice, bickering with relish even in the abbreviated text, and Deanna Boyd and Matt Gitkin are agreeably naive and attractive as the young lovers Hero and Claudio.
Richard Perloff's amiable Don Pedro hasn't much to do in this version, but Perloff makes the most of what there is, as does John Shepard as his nasty brother Don John, who tries to mess up the young lovers, although the explanation of why he attempts to do so is cloudy in this cutting.
It doesn't suffice, and also is silly, to have Don John reading "Mein Kampf" in the club, just to prove he's a bad guy, and after his arrest, his ludicrous appearance in a Nazi uniform compounds the concept's basic flaw.
Armando Jose Duran's cigar-chomping Borachio and Michael Pando's bumbling Conrade help bind Shakespeare's text to Watkins text, and Penelope Miller-Lindblom and Eve Sigall as Hero's mother and grandmother help liven the club, although the amount of time all these women spend there doesn't help with the illusion that there's a serious war going on.
* "Much Ado About Nothing," Studio Theatre, Cal State Long Beach, 7th Street and West Campus Drive, Long Beach. Wednesdays, 6 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; matinees Saturday and Oct. 7, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 14. $15. (310) 985-7000. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.
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Jeff Paul: Benedick
Doina Roman-Osborn: Beatrice
Matt Gitkin: Claudio
Deanna Boyd: Hero
Richard Perloff: Don Pedro
John Shepard: Don John
Armando Jose Duran: Borachio
Michael Pando: Conrade
Davis Mejia: Dogberry
Matt Gourley: Hugh Oatcake
Daniel C. Touris: Verges
Eve Sigall: Antonia
Penelope Miller-Lindblom: Leonora
A California Repertory Company production of Shakespeare's comedy, produced by Howard Burman and Ronald A. Lindblom. Directed by Patrick Watkins. Scenic design: Rex Heuschkel. Costume design: Liz Hubner. Technical director: Jeff Hickman. Vocal director: Penelope Lindblom. Choreography: Holly Harbinger. Production manager: Daniel C. Touris. Stage manager: Joseph P. McGinley.