There is choosing when and where to set a play by William Shakespeare, and then there is choosing when and where to set an adaptation of a Shakespeare play as reimagined by Synetic Theater. Other directors choose a time and place; Synetic’s Paata Tsikurishvili choses a time and place and an inspiration. Last year’s Twelfth Night, the 10th installment in the troupe’s silent Shakespeare series, was set somewhere in America in the Roaring Twenties and paid homage to Chaplin’s silent films. This year’s addition to the canon is Much Ado About Nothing, set in Las Vegas in the 1950s with the jackpot goal of sending-up movie musicals, from Grease to On the Town to Evita.
In many scenes, the conceit works splendidly. This Much Ado, adapted by Nathan Weinberger, is smart, clever and quite entertaining. But it could be better, if Tskurishvili hadn’t fast-forwarded a few aesthetic choices to the 1980s, and if he could find his theater a high-roller donor. Synetic has always been a company that does more with less, but here’s a show that could use more glitz, glamour, fly space, a better sound system, and at the very least, some neon signs and slot machines.
There’s no sign of the Sands or the Sahara in set designer Daniel Pinha’s depiction of the desert boomtown, which did indeed experience explosive growth in the 1950s. Working on a budget, he ringed the proscenium with flashing lights and installed a double set of descending staircases for the stars to glide down like Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon. As he often does, Tsikurishvili provides an apocryphal backstory for his characters. As you may recall from productions of Much Ado where the actors actually say Shakespeare’s lines, the play begins with soldiers returning from battle, seeking a few days of R&R at a villa owned by one Leonato, who has a hot daughter, Hero, and an equally hot—-but less agreeable—-niece named Beatrice. The men in uniform include Beatrice’s ex and Hero’s new flame. The best-ever rom-com ensues, and how barbs like “I cannot endure my Lady Tongue!” get translated into movement is much of the fun. Sequined bras, showgirls, and strip poker, anyone?
But before we get to Sin City, a fantastic Synetic set-up: We learn that Beatrice (the always amazing Irina Tsikurishvili, who also choreographs) and Benedick (Ben Cunis, who is also good and who also fight-choreographs) were lovers before he shipped out to serve Uncle Sam in World War II. As the show opens, he’s in a sailor suit and she’s all in white, and they do the Lindy Hop before he leaves the dock. When next they meet, a decade has past. She’s a now much less innocent lounge singer, lip-synching Sinatra songs at her uncle’s casino, and he’s a disturbed vet roaming the West in a James Dean-esque biker gang.
As per usual, Konstantine Lortkipanidze composed the score, but in this show more than others, he’s ripped off much of the music, including just-barely-recognizable jukebox hits by the likes of Elvis, the Everly Brothers, and Chubby Checker. By the time synthesized flutes play a number that’s just a few notes away “Fools Rush In,” you may wish Synetic would just pony up the royalty money and play the real thing. Not only would it be less annoying, it might rev up the audience.
Dallas Tolentino takes on the role of Don John the Bastard, Shakespeare’s ultimate downer of a bad guy. In this ostensibly 1950s production, his anachronistic vices include smoking crack and spray-painting graffiti where it doesn’t belong. Catching him and his cronies in the act are Vato Tsikurishvili, Justin J. Bell, and Zana Gankhuyag, as a hysterical trio of cowboy-hat Keystone Cops who devour donuts and do balletic split jumps.
While this Much Ado doesn’t create a cohesive onstage world as successfully as some past silent Shakespeare productions, the ensemble dancing is better than ever, and the final wedding jive—complete with poodle skirts—-puts Olivia Newton-John to shame. Rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong—-Beatrice and Benedick, Hero and Claudio, and Synetic and Shakespeare will always be together. Now follow them to the chapel of love.
Photo by Koko Lanham