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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Josh Whedon’s Much ado about Nothing

Or: “Everybody’s talkin’ bout the new sound, funny, but its still ‘Much Ado’ to me.”


The more I see of Josh Whedon's art the higher it climbs in my esteem. He is the Postmodern Prometheus, the great deconstructer of established tropes. He can atomize and deconstruct the horror industry, tell tales of the Wild West (in Space!), make us long for the bad guy to get the girl and pen a seven season long exploration of the nuances of feminism and the undead. And this is the chap, at the top of the heap who muses one day, “Hmm. Seems I’ve got a bit of a holiday coming up. I’ll just call up some of my mates and we’ll spend twelve days making a modern Much Ado About Nothing. It’ll be a lark.”


‘Hold the phone Mr. Whedon!’ This minuscule critic cries, ‘Your talking about Shakespeare! Your typical dialogue squirrel scampers across the page, very clever and amusing and all that, but you are about to embrace centuries old, roiling waves of text. They’re just as bawdy and sharp certainly, but they require a careful shaping and projection. Are your sure your mates are up to the test? Best to leave such heights to Emma Thompson (who is Glory) or David Tennat (who talks like that anyway).”


And indeed if I am am to proceed, dear reader I must point out that the vast majority of Much Ado’s cast were prone to mumbling, and failed to make the words sing as they were intended. Benedict (Alex Denisof), our cad-with-a-golden-heart hero is particularly egregious in his speech, sounding no more or less like a young William Shatner. The best “shakespearean” speaker proved to be Ursula (Emma Bates) the maid who got perhaps fifteen minutes of screen time, tops. It appears that naturalistic acting and Shakespeare’s text (as well as his characters), are very difficult to bring together. These words were, after all, designed for a three hundred plus seat open air house, not for the nuances of a boom mike.


That boil being burst I would be greatly remiss if I did not add that the cast as a whole makes up for their general deficiency with clarity. Thought they may mumble, every act-jack of them are consummate screen performers who know how to make the fireworks of desire or the fetters of betrayal shine out in eyes and clamp down in tendons, even when they remain muffled in voice. Many actors (Denisof, Amy Acker, Clark Gregg and Nathan Fillion in particular) also excel as slapstick artists, giving nuanced and well measured failings that make the film a true comedy, which is what its supposed to be.


Now. If you don’t know the plot of Much Ado, I will look at you Askance. I’m doing it now. But in case you have not had the pleasure of seeing this neat little play, here’s the rundown: Leonato (Clark Gregg), his virtuous daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) and his spirited Niece Beatrice (Amy Acker) are playing host to a weekend for notable politico Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his boon companions idealistic Claudio (Fran Kranz) and the jaded jokester Benedict (Alexis Denisof). Benedict and Beatrice suffer from perhaps the worst case of Belligerent Sexual Tension in all of literature while Claudio and Hero fall swiftly but chastely in love with each other. The plans for the wedding, as well as the other characters attempts to match Beatrice and Benedict, are thwarted by Don Pedro’s evil brother Don John (the commendably sleazy Sean Maher) and the well intended but blundering security services of Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), Vergis (Tom Lenk) and The Watch.

Ambition of verse pardoned, Whedon and co. do a fantastic job of framing the story, with plenty of sight gags (Benedict's attempts at eavesdropping) sumptuous shots (the acrobats at the masquerade), crafting lots of character embellishments, adding a healthy dash of Deliberate Values Dissonance, and, with the assistance of his collaborator Maruissa Tancharoen, making Shakespeare’s embedded songs “swing”. He also earns points for stitching in a rarely performed scene featuring Margaret the wayward maid (Ashely Johnson) to prove that just because your female and lower-class doesn’t mean you can’t joust with the best of ‘em.


Amy Acker is the jewel in Whedon’s crown. Her Beatrice is not only suitably alive and clear for the camera, but also manages to keep the spark of the original linguistic fire burning in each line. Perhaps she is a little too fond of forearm acting, but when it comes time to open her heart to her enemy or rage against injustice, she delivers like an RSC or ISF pro. If I had the power I would make an As You Like It or better yet an Alls Well that Ends Well in order to introduce her to those other immortal women. Denisof, as before stated is no linguistic magician, but he makes up for this by being, in laymen's terms, ‘so darn funny’. He has an elasticity and swiftness to his face and posture of a true Benedict, and can speak volumes with the pull of an eyebrow. Kranz also handles both text and expression admirably, given the minuscule resources he has to work with. And Fillion is as Fillion is always: pompous and slow, and perfectly happy to stand under the lances of fate and showers of laughter. He also handles the malapropisms and Dogberry’s asinine insistence with excellent good grace.


While not quite topping the ’93 version, nor being a suitable substitute for a live play, Whedon plays Much Ado like a virtuoso, plays its passion and its comedy to the hilt and makes it a resounding success. His cast, mumblers though they be, make us laugh and wince and tear up exactly where they are supposed to and it would be injust to ask for more. Well done Mr. Whedon, you triumph again. Now there’s a little political drama called Julius Caesar I’d like you to take a look at....


*Subtitle tweaked with reverence from Billy Joel

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