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Gazette Premium Content REVIEW: Joss Whedon's version lacks pizzaz, but wit, wordplay and casting are in fine form

by roger moore McClatchy Newspapers - Published: June 21, 2013

In Shakespeare's day, "Nothing" was a double entendre, and a sexual one at that. And "noting" was a sexual innuendo, not to mention a pun on "nothing."

So when the Bard titled his comedy "Much Ado About Nothing," the man was joking about sex.

The sexiness moves front and center in Joss Whedon's black-and-white production of "Much Ado," a winking comedy with dark underpinnings and some of Shakespeare's most wicked wordplay.

Claudio: "Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signor Leonato?"

Benedick: "I noted her not, but I looked on her."

As in, "Yeah dude, I saw her. But no, I haven't hit that."

Whedon rounded up members of his TV repertory company - "Buffy," "Angel," "Dollhouse" and "Firefly" vets - and filmed the play in and around his rambling (wife-designed) home, a modern-dress "Much Ado" that has cellphones and limos and security details looking over these flirting and feuding folk, with many of the males among them freshly returned from war.

Reed Diamond is Don Pedro, leading his entourage to a visit with Leonato (Clark Gregg). Young, headstrong Claudio (Fran Kranz) is instantly smitten with Leonato's daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese). But hit-it-and-quit-it trooper Benedick (Alexis Denisof) is less impressed. He's too busy bickering with the razor-tongued Beatrice (Amy Acker) to warn off the younger man.

And that prisoner of war, Don Pedro's half-brother, Don John (Sean Maher) is skulking around, sexing up one aide (Riki Lindhome) and plotting discord with the other (Spencer Treat Clark). With Claudio determined to marry Hero in a rush, there's just enough time to sew the seeds of mistrust and create an incident that might benefit the aptly-named "Don John-the-Bastard."

This bare-bones production has little of the froth and charisma of Kenneth Branagh's lush, period-dress version of 1993. Truthfully, the leads are serviceable, competent and amusing, but they're TV-bland. But the wit and wordplay are in fine form, and some bits of casting are inspired. Dogberry, the malapropism-spouting constable, is played with deadpan glee by Nathan Fillion ("Firefly," TV's "Castle"). He's got the sunglasses, the haughty pose. And he's got the best lines.

"Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves."

This being Shakespeare and a comedy, you know that love will triumph long before the last "Hey nonny nonny." And not for nothing, Whedon does a wonderful job of lending weight to the betrayals and adding sexual spark to a play that's always been notably, noticeably sexy.

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