Most of the men in the current production of “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison are soldiers. But they’re making love, not war, of course, since this is a comedy about two couples — and how love blooms surprisingly for one, and is almost tragically thwarted for the other.
Director Scott Wentworth (who also plays Benedick) moves the action from summertime in the 16th century to Christmas time during World War II; by doing so, he turns one of Shakespeare’s sharpest comedies into feel-good holiday fare, complete with mistletoe and a Christmas tree on the stage, Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” on the radio, and even Shakespeare’s “Sigh No More” song delivered as if it were a Christmas carol.
This two-act, 2½-hour take on the play begins with Benedick in a military outpost, alone and whittling. He falls asleep, and the rest of the play (up to the final scene, which is him alone again, waking up) is meant to be a dream. Perhaps it’s all a fantasy; or he’s dreaming about how he and his wife got married; or maybe he’s remembering the Shakespeare play, and his subconscious is filling it with characters from his own life.
There are some pitfalls to modernizing this play, though: The notion of a group of soldiers congregating at the home of a rich and powerful man might have made sense during Shakespeare’s time, but it seems odd that they would be doing so, and in no rush to return to their homes or get back into battle, during World War II.
The ages of the 60ish Wentworth and his Beatrice, Marion Adler (who is Wentworth’s real-life wife), is a hurtle as well. Though James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave recently played the bickering lovebirds in London, Benedicks and Beatrices are usually not this old, and there’s a reason for this: Their friends’ and relatives’ consternation that they are still unmarried only makes sense if they are younger. When people reach late middle age unmarried, other people just assume that’s the way they’ll always be.
On the other hand, the production’s framing device helps viewers suspend disbelief. Maybe Benedick is just remembering the past, and he and Beatrice look the way they do because that’s the way they look now. And the performances, all around, are strong enough that those nagging doubts eventually vanish as you get caught up in the play’s drama and humor.
Wentworth and Adler are, ultimately, very good in the roles, delivering their complex Shakespearean zingers with sharp comic timing. Wentworth’s Benedick is a lovable rogue, Adler’s Beatrice a shrew with a sweet streak; you can feel their affection for each other from the start, even when they profess that they have no romantic feelings for each other.
Strong supporting work by, among others, Raphael Nash Thompson as the powerful but good-hearted Leonato, Austin Blunk as the villianous Borachio, Jeffrey M. Bender as the buffoonish, word-mangling Dogberry and Conan McCarty as Dogberry’s sputtering assistant Verges, helps make this a rewarding evening. Playing Hero — the virtuous young woman who almost loses her true love, Claudio — Susan Maris is particularly good at conveying the glee she feels when plotting to get her cousin Beatrice married as well.
As far as the Christmas angle … it’s a clever touch, but ultimately doesn’t really add that much. There are long stretches, in fact — particularly in the first half of the second act — when it seems to be forgotten. But if it helps draw people in to this solid production of one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays, then it’s something that really is worth much ado.
Shows are scheduled for Dec. 9-10, 16-17 and 23 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 11-12 and 18-19 at 8 p.m., Dec. 13, 20 and 26-27 at 2 and 8 p.m., and Dec. 14, 21 and 28 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $32 to $62; visit shakespearenj.org.