A skirmish of wit attends “Much Ado About Nothing” in Griffith Park, and it proves a notable argument. Independent Shakespeare Company concludes its summer season with an agreeably quirky, riotously funny take on the Bard’s evergreen romantic comedy.
With a well-judged update to the end of World War II, director Jeffrey Wienckowski dives into the milieu, as an upstage radio blares a "News On the March" announcement of the victorious Don Pedro’s brigade returning to Messina (Chris Porter’s sound design, here big band, there Italian opera, and Amanda Lee's period costumes are assets throughout).
The subsequent tableau vivant to “Begin the Beguine” identifies the characters with economy, and suits the themes of gender politics and deception that permeate the work.
Company co-founders and real-life spouses Melissa Chalsma and David Melville make memorable mincemeat out of Beatrice and Benedick, perhaps Shakespeare’s most delightful squabbling soul mates unaware. Both display keen comic chops and spontaneity in the asides and ad-libs -- their twin appearances from the audience while eavesdropping on their coevals’ ruses are priceless -- without sacrificing nuance.
Surrounding them is an appealing, gratifyingly diverse ensemble, occasionally over-broad but clearly having a grand time. Erwin Tuazon’s Claudio and Danny Brown’s Hero are youthfully charming, Napoleon Tavale’s Don Pedro appreciably understated, Danny Campbell’s Leonato and Joseph Culliton’s Antonio agreeably old-school.
As villainous Don John, William Elsman infuses his menace with drollery; Richard Azurdia and Xavi Moreno are vivid as his henchman; and so forth, with André Martin’s word-mangling Dogberry and Thomas Ehas’ deadpan Verges approaching “Carry On” film territory.
Purists may bemoan the liberties taken, parents should be aware of mild lewdness, and the melodramatic histrionics at Hero’s wedding risk overkill. But the spirit of the piece is acute; at the reviewed performance, when Beatrice and Benedick finally embraced, the crowd roared its approval as one person. Grab a sweater, pack a picnic and go.
“Much Ado About Nothing,” Old Zoo Theatre Space in Griffith Park, L.A. 7 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Ends Aug. 30. Free. See website for directions. (818) 710-6306 or www.iscla.org. Running time: 3 hours.