Too many attempts to make Shakespeare's plays accessible by moving them into post-Elizabethan settings merely make the Bard irrelevant. In 1996, Arizona Theatre Company updated Two Gentlemen of Verona to 1920s Hollywood, and in 1978 Invisible Theatre transported Much Ado about Nothing to the old West, with the men dressed as cavalry officers prancing around on stick ponies. Neither version quite worked, because the odd trappings became a distraction; they told us much about the directors' and designers' concepts, but nothing about Shakespeare.
Occasionally, though, wrenching Shakespeare out of the Elizabethan age works wonders. Last spring, Samantha Wyer set the University of Arizona's production of Two Gents in a 1970s disco, and suddenly the characters' puzzling actions and motivations made perfect sense. And now, Arizona Theatre Company's David Ira Goldstein has dressed up Much Ado as if it were an early-1960s Fellini film chronicling an alluringly decadent society. The play's locale remains Sicily, but the sets and costumes murmur La Dolce Vita most seductively. This turns out to be one of the most enjoyable and right-seeming local Shakespeare productions in a generation.
Whether set in Athens, Vienna, Paris or Verona, very few of Shakespeare's comedies are really specific to a particular place, period or culture. Somehow, they all seem full of Elizabethan Englishmen, however odd their names may be. So substituting a new setting doesn't necessarily lead to disaster as long as the change supports the play, rather than smothers it.
ATC's Much Ado works because--aside from the little detail of pitch-perfect acting from the entire, large cast--Goldstein's concept fits the play so effortlessly. We're still dealing with elegant Italians--Sicilians, to be precise; it's a natural setting for emotions to run high and vendetta to be an option when things go badly wrong.
Shakespeare invested himself entirely in the words of this play--Beatrice and Benedick, lovers despite themselves, spar with some of the sharpest wit you'll ever encounter, in contrast to constable Dogberry, who mangles the language extravagantly. But there's no real atmosphere on the page, so Goldstein and company are brilliantly coloring in an aspect of the play that Shakespeare left as the merest sketch.
The main plot involves the effort of young lord Claudio to marry the politically and socially well-connected Hero, using the noble Don Pedro as his intermediary. Things proceed reasonably well until Don Pedro's bastard brother (in more ways than one), Don John, begins to meddle. Simply because he's in a chronically surly mood, and not because he has any real interest in the match, Don John connives to ruin the marriage.
Meanwhile, friends conspire to bring together Beatrice and Benedick. Each regards wedlock as more of a headlock, a trap to be avoided, and they're engaged in a long-term, somewhat good-natured and somewhat vicious battle of insults. Obviously, they were made for each other.
Shakespeare has thus essentially reduced The Taming of the Shrew to a subplot here, but the subplot is really the most engaging part of the play, especially when Beatrice and Benedick are portrayed by such dynamic actors as ATC's Suzanne Bouchard and Frank Corrado. They're older than Shakespeare intended, which is good; these aren't foolish kids, but middle-aged adults vulnerable for having been set in their ways so long.
The other cast members all rise to the level of Boouchard and Corrado, but special mention must be made of Jeff Steitzer as the pompous, malaprop-ridden Dogberry, and, as Don John, David Pichette, who has been a riveting source of dark mischief on the ATC stage since his appearance as Renfield in Dracula in 1995.
Scenic designer Bill Forrester's fanciful Italian piazza serves handily as banquet hall, village square and vineyard. David Kay Mickelsen deserves particular applause for his costumes; his sharply tailored Italian suits evoke the greatest era of men's fashion, ever, and his period-specific women's dresses remind us that the golden age of women's fashion had ended a good 15 years before. (But shouldn't more of the men be sauntering around in sunglasses, with their jackets draped over their shoulders like capes, or was that just Woody Allen in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex?)
Composer Roberta Carlson has done some of her best work for this show, a sequence of silly saltarellos and other Italian musical confections. Given the design team's evocation of early '60s cinema, it would have been appropriate for her to employ more of the bite and grotesquerie of Fellini's favorite film composer, Nino Rota, but at least Carlson does get in an excellent little musical joke quoting Rota's most famous melody (though not one for a Fellini film).
In every respect, this is superb theater, something worth much ado.