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Beatrice and Benedick in Bensonhurst? Who’d’a thunkit?xxxxxxxx

Of course, a director could pick less appropriate spots if the aim is to update Much Ado About Nothing for an age that’s more resistant than Shakespeare’s to romantic braggadocio. The play’s comedy relies on men who are equal parts machismo and free-flowing emotion, and women who can stop those men in their tracks with a blend of smooches and smart-ass retorts. The Bard placed their story in Italy, which he pictured as a land of hot-blooded romantics. At the Folger Theater, we’re some 4,200 miles west, but the stereotypes hold up pretty well. When played with Nyew Yawk accents, the tale does sound a bit like Moonstruck with better dialogue.

Welcome to Joe Banno’s goofily Italian-American Much Ado, set in Leonato’s, a cozy, wood-paneled neighborhood bar where the waitress wears in-line skates and the jukebox plays a mix of Sinatra and David Lee Roth. As designed by Tony Cisek, it seems just the sort of spot where a cop like “Prince of the City” Don Pedro would be apt to rub elbows with his delinquent, motorcycle-jacketed brother. And where an unmarried plainclothes detective like Benedick (David Fendig) might grab a beer after work, complain loudly about fickle womankind just to bug career woman Beatrice (Holly Twyford), who’s sitting in the next booth, and then do a double-take at a Playboy centerfold while opining that a woman’s hair ought to be “what color it please God.”

Also where a shy police recruit could meet the barmaid of his dreams, but be so afraid to talk to her that his commanding officer has to put in a good word with her father at a Halloween dance to get their romance going.

If you’re at all familiar with Much Ado, you’ll recognize the grace with which the director (who is also Washington City Paper’s opera critic) has found modern excuses for some pretty hoary Elizabethan plot devices. When costuming places a production’s action firmly in the 1990s, after all, masked balls and parental input in nuptial decisions can need justifying as much as poetic declarations do. Most directors can figure out a way to turn, say, a Shakespearean quatrain about a military victory into a plausible TV newscast, as Banno does in the opening scene here. But many an updating—this same director’s modern-dress Les Liaisons Dangereuses, for one—ends up tripping over its own cleverness when it tries to match up visuals and content in a manner consistent enough to keep its overall conceit from unraveling.

Fortunately, Much Ado finds Banno back at the top of his game. He finesses most language questions by placing the action in a bar, where tippling customers might reasonably be expected to wax florid at times. And the modern equivalents he’s found for Elizabethan professions—turning the prince and his men into law-enforcement types, and their host into a bar owner (who shares his lines with a wife Shakespeare barely even mentioned in stage directions)—are pure genius. Especially nice is the transformation of malaprop-spouting Constable Dogberry (Gary Telles) and his chum Verges (David Bryan Jackson) into a pair of blitheringly dim security guards.

Also contributing to the fun is Banno’s fondness for finding visual and aural jokes that reinforce modernity without interfering with the text—toilet paper stuck to a shoe, for instance, or a percussion solo tapped on barware for no better reason than that it’ll annoy a character who’s trying to concentrate. When an impatient mother runs offstage with a baseball bat in the middle of a rambling speech by a character she wants to get rid of, and returns triumphantly to the sound of tinkling glass and a bleating car alarm, not a word need be spoken to place the action firmly in the present. (Scott Burgess’ sound design, incidentally, contributes mightily to the evening’s success, especially the sitcom-style musical bridges he’s composed for scene changes.)

None of which would count for much if the acting weren’t up to snuff, but it is, pretty much to the tiniest walk-on. Twyford’s Beatrice (primly caustic until riled, at which point she starts channeling Lucy Ricardo) and Fendig’s Benedick (the most put-upon gumshoe this side of a Raymond Chandler novel) are ideally matched, whether dueling with words or taking pratfalls. And they’re supported by a remarkable array of small-theater stars, from Washington Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Christopher Henley as the evening’s punkish villain to Woolly Mammoth’s Rhea Seehorn as its virginal bride.

Ben Hulan makes the neglectful bridegroom, Claudio, seem more coltish than callow, which is a nice change in a part that can’t help playing a bit nastily. Jeffrey Johnson, who was so fine as the title character in Studio Theater’s Kerouac earlier this season, manages to turn the bit part of Borachio, a factotum who barely registers in most productions of the play, into a sharply etched rogue cop who develops a conscience. I could go on, but you’ll have more fun if you discover these folks yourself.

One minor quibble: When the going gets physical, it also gets pretty broad. The sequences in which Benedick and Beatrice eavesdrop on friends who are bent on tricking them into falling in love are played so flamboyantly that the jests seem calibrated more for the MCI Center than for the intimate confines of the Folger’s Elizabethan auditorium. Don’t let that keep you away, though. Banno’s Bard-in-a-bar concept is such a hoot that you’ll wish it were your regular hangout.CP