“Get thee a wife!”
Writer/director Joss Whedon finished principal photography on the most expensive and complex project of his career only to find himself starring a contractually obligated vacation in the face before beginning post-production. The Avengers had him contending with multiple superstar celebrities inside a computer-effects heavy world the likes of which a television career that utilized much of the same talent never came close to reaching. While no one would have blamed him for holing up on some beach to relax with his family, Whedon had other ideas. He dusted off an adapted screenplay of William Shakespeare‘s Much Ado About Nothing he used in the past during one of many impromptu dinner party readings, called up some friends, hired a crew, and readied his Santa Monica home for an ultra low budget affair.
Fans of the Whedonverse have enjoyed hearing stories of these readings for years now. Who wouldn’t love the idea of their favorite character actors hanging out after hours with a guy of Whedon’s clout organizing everything for nothing more than a few hours of fun? Supposedly one night of singing led to the iconic “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode “Once More, with Feeling” while Amy Acker‘s reading of Lady Capulet inspired Joss to transform her character Fred from “Angel” into the blue goddess Illyria. These events therefore had a major impact on the creative process of the aforementioned work as well as “Firefly” and “Dollhouse”—each religiously watched by diehards every week. In hindsight it’s actually hard to believe this unofficial acting troupe hadn’t brought their Shakespeare renditions before cameras until now.
A comedic play with issues of politics, honor, and love, Much Ado‘s original prose occurs during war after a successful battle brings Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and his officers Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) to Messina governor Leonato’s (Clark Gregg) home for a month’s respite. Their arrival sparks romance between Claudio and Leonato’s only daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) to the point of seeking matrimony at first sight. Scoffed at by the consummate bachelor Benedick—who shares his own sordid past with Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Acker)—a masquerade ball is held, treachery is introduced, and the Bard’s usual themes of faked death and mistaken identity takeover. The honorable members attempt to transform Benedick and Beatrice’s “merry war” of sarcastic jabs into love as the vile Don John (Sean Maher) looks to ruin everything.
By bringing this world into the present day—while retaining the iambic pentameter—war is changed to diplomacy as Prince Pedro arrives at Leonato’s with little more than an interest in having fun. Only his illegitimate brother John and followers (Spencer Treat Clark‘s Borachio and Riki Lindhome‘s Conrade) possess the type of villainy to propel the plot into the slanderous direction it takes, their actions completely contrived yet necessary to add conflict and some of the biggest laughs. While far from the only deceivers involved, their conspiracy of pain and suffering to fracture Pedro and Leonato’s relationship is far from the jovial white lies planted in the ears of Beatrice and Benedick by the rest. They all, however, lead towards a wealth of physical comedy, witty banter, and enjoyably overwrought melodrama.
An obvious success for Whedon fanatics, novices shouldn’t feel overwhelmed due to the rendition also being one of the most accessible Shakespeare adaptations around. It doesn’t overload our senses like Baz Luhrmann or go overboard in aesthetic splendor like Julie Taymor—it coaxes the comedy’s essence by letting the script unfold naturally via nuanced performers moving around a singular locale shot with a keen flair only its owner could envision. Mirrors, windows, and hidden alcoves are used to perfection as characters hold their true intentions close to their chest and actors engage each other inside a space they’ve surely become very familiar with over the years. There is a built in chemistry that cannot be faked and a level of shorthand between filmmaker and cast ensuring an authenticity of tone and spirit in every frame.
Diamond and Gregg are fantastic in their covert scheming to push Benedick towards Beatrice; Kranz and Morgese (an Avengers extra Whedon took a shine towards) brilliantly go from puppy love to a palpable anger and back again courtesy of the deceit surrounding them; and Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as pompous policemen Dogberry and Verges steal scenes with their comic prowess. Maher plays the remorseless villain nicely despite his inclusion proving the most glaringly out-of-place tonally while Clark shows a glimmer of hope for himself after turning Ashley Johnson‘s likeable maid Margaret into Don John’s puppet. They all ham it up when necessary to serve the plot—whether in lighter or darker moments—but even at their most extreme find a way to keep us invested in their fabricated reality.
It’s a massive ensemble with bright spots throughout, but Much Ado is at its best when spotlighting Whedon stalwarts Acker and Denisof as bona fide leads. Their Beatrice and Benedick are a riot with sharp tongues and offended demeanors, each rendered even more hilarious when the little birdies in their ears melt them into giddy children lost in a love they never believed possible. Both go full bore into the physical laughs, badly attempting to hide themselves while eavesdropping on conversations fully intended to be heard. Both tap into the unrequited love they shared in “Angel”, rekindling their intelligence-based connection of equally matched wits. Shouldering the bulk of the play’s weight, Acker and Denisof help lead us through the Old English to easily appreciate a masterpiece many never would chance otherwise.
 Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, directed by Joss Whedon. CREDIT Elsa Guillet-Chapuis
 Tom Lenk and Nathan Fillion in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, directed by Joss Whedon. CREDIT Elsa Guillet-Chapuis
 Amy Acker in Joss Whedon’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. CREDIT: Elsa Guillet-Chapuis