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Whedon's 'Much Ado' a well-played take on Shakespeare

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 8:12 p.m.

It surprised no one that, with his pop-culture sensibility and love for the genre, Joss Whedon was able to do such wonderful things with “The Avengers.”

So, it probably shouldn't be a surprise to learn that Whedon is also marvelously adept at Shakespeare, as his do-it-yourself version of “Much Ado About Nothing” affirms. And why not? Whedon is a master of wit, of clever wordplay that doesn't just entertain but crackles with knowing energy.

That Shakespeare fellow was pretty good at it, too.

Purists might argue that this is Shakespeare done “light,” that it is some lesser version. Don't listen. Like most movie versions, it's necessarily been abridged, but what “Much Ado About Nothing” is, in reality, Shakespeare done well, with a contemporary feel (and setting) that does nothing to diminish its appeal or impact.

Amy Acker also has something to do with that. Her portrayal of the quick-witted, sharp-tongued Beatrice is outstanding, making her more than a match for Alexis Denisof's equally clever Benedick. Their loquacious flirtation is a crucial element of the play, and these two bring the words to life in believable, relatable ways (even though Whedon doesn't update the language).

That they are stalwart members of Whedon's stable of go-to actors is no accident. Much of the cast is (including Nathan Fillion as the dimwitted Dogberry), bringing a comfort level to the ensemble that strengthens the production.

The play concerns the impending marriage of Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese). A group of people is gathered at the home of Hero's father, Leonato (Clark Gregg, ever-reliable), for drinking and talking and drinking some more. As Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) works to bring the couple to the altar, Don John (Sean Maher) schemes to tear them apart.

So, not a lot different from your average melodrama, really. What sets it apart is the banter, the inspired wordplay, particularly between Beatrice and Benedick. It takes some verbal dexterity to sell it, and Acker and Denisof do. They are a delight to spend time with, the rapid-fire dialogue, intricately constructed as it may be to modern ears, landing squarely every time.

Whedon shot the film, in black and white, over 12 days at his own home, as a break from making “The Avengers.” This may make it sound like a vanity project, something a rich, creative guy does for fun.

Far from it. While not everyone in the cast is as comfortable with the dialogue as Acker, for whom it seems natural, there is a clear love for the material here in every performance, in every shot. It's not stuffy or remote. It's fun.

Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett.

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