Much Ado About Nothing is hardly about inconsequential things. It’s about life, love, and the apparent loss of each through malevolent treachery. But Shakespeare is reminding us that a miss is as good as a mile, and that while happiness may not be the default condition of life, it sure makes us happy to think that that’s so.
Brown Theater and Sock & Buskin has placed their swashbuckling production (through October 29) in Northern California during the Mexican-American War, a couple of years before the giddy boom times of the California Gold Rush. Directed by John Emigh, the mustaches are as outsized as the freewheeling activities and emotions of both lovers and villains.
Setting the play in 1846 places it in an optimistic time for the characters, a brief hiatus after Hispanic land barons had wrested the territory from the Mexican government but before they would be deposed the next year by US army troops.
So Leonato (Michael Ennis) is no longer governor of Messina but rather mayor of Yerba Buena. The servant Ursula is now a Chinese immigrant by the name of Yu Su Ling (Michelle Tan). Costumes by Phillip Contic are authentic enough to include the occasional hoop skirt and entertaining enough to cross the more masculine of chests with bullet-stuffed bandoliers.
Shakespeare relaxed the tone of Much Ado by writing not in blank verse but in straight — albeit Shakespearian — prose. The Brown actors, in turn, loosen up to match.
As usual in the playwright’s comedies, we get not just one romantic couple but two, so that they can compare notes. Leonato’s niece Beatriz (Leighton Bryan) and newcomer Benedicto (Jon Magaziner) are, basically, sparring partners. Each spurns love until they are tricked into believing that the other is secretly swooning over them.
Benedicto’s friend Claudio (Ross Cowan) is instantly smitten with Heroe (Charlotte Graham), the daughter of Leonato, who agrees even faster to their wedding. This provides an opportunity for Mr. John (Douglas Benedicto) to make vile mischief. (He was Don John to Elizabethan audiences, but here he is an Anglo land owner. Hisssss. Que villanía!) In this production, the miscreant is played like a 19th-century stage villain, a Simon Legree who grins at us in evil glee, inviting us to boo.
Shakespeare emphasized the perfunctory nature of this cardboard bad guy by having the most foolish of his play’s many comical characters be the one to find him out. Here Dogberry (Austin Campbell) is the sheriff instead of a constable in charge of the night watch. His men overhear the servant Borracho (Nick Schoenfeld) brag about having pretended to pitch woo to Heroe on her balcony, while the woman in the clinch was actually her chambermaid. The jig is up. Campbell does well in the most flat-out comical role in this comedy, articulating Dogberry’s highfalutin but confused vocabulary (“Comparisons are odorous”) as proudly as a president.
So often in comedies it’s the little bits and business then get us to laugh the loudest: Dogberry putting a huge spittoon to use — or looking panicked when he can’t find one amidst aristocratic company; Beatriz flickering through a troubled double take between smiles over a love poem filched from Benedicto; a disarming giggle from servant Yu Su Ling when she encounters those two kissing. For the most part, this troupe has the inventive imagination to keep those moments coming.