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Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Too Much Ado About Nothing

An entertaining transposition of Shakespeare to the 1950s

From left to right: Leonato (Rob McQuay), Claudio (Michael Ryan Neely), Don Pedro (Devion McArthur) and Benedick (Grayson Owen).

Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing endures because audiences love smart love stories. Twenty years ago, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson revived it on film. Joss Whedon’s critically acclaimed remake — now showing at the West End Cinema in D.C. — is set in modern-day California.
    So I was excited about the Shakespeare Company’s version, set in the Fabulous Fifties. The production is no exception to the reputation The Annapolis Shakespeare Company has earned in its three-year life for delivering classics with professionalism.
    Yet much as I wanted to love it, it just doesn’t feel right for the time. Sure, the cast is top drawer, the women look great in their crinolined sundresses and Esther Williams swimwear, and the 1950s’ soundtrack keeps the action moving and the actors dancing to flat-out cookin’ choreography. The problem is plot, and it’s not Shakespeare’s fault. His work just doesn’t translate well to the times presented.
    To summarize the tangled plot, Leonato (Rob McQuay) and Innogen (Peg Nichols) are nobles installed at the tropical Messina Hotel with their sweet daughter Hero (Alyssa Bouma) and fiery niece Beatrice (Chandish Nester). Don Pedro (Devion McArthur), a naval commander, and his fellow officers come visiting. Among them are confirmed bachelor Benedick (Grayson Owen), who enjoys an acerbic relationship with Beatrice, and Claudio (Michael Ryan Neely), who falls for Hero. With Claudio and Hero on the fast track to matrimony, Don Pedro conspires to trick Benedick and Beatrice into falling in love, as well. Helping his plot succeed are Leonato and young friends Ursula (Kimberlee Wolfson) and Balthasar (Jonathan Jacobs).
    Meanwhile, Don Pedro’s villainous brother Don John (Eric Porter) enlists accomplices Borachio (Stephen Horst) and Conrad (Tim Torre) to plot against the happy couple. By staging a liaison between the dashing Borachio and Hero’s unsuspecting friend Margaret (Chelsea Mayo), who is dressed as Hero, he tricks Claudio into believing his fiancée unfaithful. Outraged, Claudio rejects Hero at the altar. She withdraws in a deathly depression until proven innocent through an investigation by hotel rent-a-cops Dogberry (Alex Foley), Verges (Deryl Davis) and a young watchman (Ben Lauer).
    In this update, Benedick and Beatrice’s verbal sparring follows the pattern of a classic Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn film. But when innocent Hero is reviled for having lost her virtuous maidenhood, Claudio and Leonato’s vitriol takes the script straight back to the Elizabethan era. In that, the show’s premise goes awry.
    Nevertheless, there is much to applaud. Foremost is Owen’s seamless performance as Benedick. Reminiscent of a chain-smoking Fred Astaire, he plays both Beatrice and audience, swinging from eavesdropper to center of attention as Carmen Miranda in drag. Likewise, Nester nuances Beatrice’s sass with class and brains.
     Horst combines the dance moves of Patrick Swayze with the bad boy magnetism of Vince Vaughn. Neely has a way of lighting the fires of passion with a mere gaze. Foley does wonders with the small role of Dogberry, the overblown and officious master of malapropisms. Davis as his assistant has a hilarious rubber face. Jacobs rounds out the music with a lovely “Sigh No More,” composed by T. Bouma with a heavy Earth Angel influence.
    This is an entertaining romp; make no mistake. It’s just unfortunately laughable where it should be most tragic.
    If you love the Bard, paint your nails red, have a martini and cruise over to Bowie Playhouse for escapist summer fun.

Director: Sally Boyett-D’Angelo. Choreographer: Ken Skrzesz. Set designer: Steven Royal. Costumes: Maggie Cason. Lights: Garrett Hyde. Musical director: Theresa Sweet Bouma. With Miranda Savage, Hunter Kane, Clifford Jamieson and Eli Stiewing.
Playing Th-Su thru Aug. 18. ThF 8pm; Sa 2 & 8pm; Su 2 & 7:30pm at Bowie Playhouse, White Marsh Park. $15-$20; rsvp: 410-280-1775;