The actors take the stage in Aquila Theatre Company's "Much Ado About Nothing" in what could be a music video for a spy movie -- complete with freeze-frame action sequences, guys in dark suits and sunglasses, seductresses in black leather catsuits, a defused bomb and a vintage Mini Cooper, all against the backdrop of a giant Union Jack.
It's slick, sexy and cool, but for theatergoers who prefer their Shakespeare less MTV and more meaningful, the touring show now running at La Jolla Playhouse probably isn't the production for you. With a sparse to negligible set (the zippy Mini is in fact the only set piece), lots of trimming here and there and dance sequences replacing whole scenes, this "Much Ado" is, in a word, reductive.
Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that. Aquila brought its superficial yet charming "Comedy of Errors" to the Playhouse in 2003. That production worked primarily because the talented New York-based company was able to convey much of the play through the shorthand of physical comedy, slapstick and sight gags.
With "Much Ado," the formula of spy shtick, slapstick and go-go strutting doesn't quite add up. While Aquila's production is accessible and certainly has its fun moments, that easy entertainment comes at a price. While "Much Ado" is a comedy of wit, it also verges on tragedy, with meditations on honor, betrayal, shame and court politics. Much of this seriousness gets lost in the pursuit of laughs.
The production plays up the sex, intrigue and the scheming (both playful and malicious), but there isn't much connection between Shakespeare's text and the 1960s-era British espionage theme.
The costumes are "Avengers" and 007 hip, but there isn't much to distinguish the various characters from each other. The women, in the ubiquitous catsuits, are set apart mostly by the color of their hair. For the men, wearing matching black suits, bowlers and sunglasses, it's the color of their shirts. And all that black sameness negates each character's particular class, status and style. Margaret (Marwa Bernstein), Hero's attendant, is indistinguishable from both Hero (Kathryn Merry) and Beatrice in this regard.
The cast, though, does the best it can with a flimsy concept. The eight members play a dozen characters with great expression and clear diction. Louis Butelli and John Lavelle are especially limber -- literally and metaphorically -- morphing into a variety of roles, and their comedic timing is spot on. Vaudeville meets bada-bing Jersey mafioso in their hilarious constable and watchman act.
As Beatrice, Jessica Boevers has a deliciously acerbic wit and fiery attitude that fits her like a catsuit -- these boots were definitely made for walkin'. Anthony Cochrane is equally excellent as Benedick, the not-so-confirmed bachelor and misanthrope. But especially in a stripped-down version, the adversaries who would be lovers must quickly demonstrate the underlying compatibility beneath their outward hostility. Boevers and Cochrane, though fine performers, seem to lack the chemistry to make their story spark with much more than humor and vitriol.
Aquila's "Much Ado About Nothing" is a stylish romp that may prove a good introduction for young audiences or the Shakespeare-averse. It's "Shakespeare lite" -- fluffy and fun. But while the "Avengers"-inspired confection may dissolve quickly on the tongue, it won't leave a lasting impression on the palate.
PROGRAM: Aquila Theatre Company's "Much Ado About Nothing"
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Dates: Through Feb. 19
Show times: Tuesdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.
Location: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive on campus at UCSD
More information: (858) 550-1010, www.lajollaplayhouse.com