A Caribbean lilt and a Washington carnival setting appear to be an inspired combination for “Much Ado About Nothing,” Shakespeare’s sunny and sexy battle of wits between the sexes.
Tony Cisek’s back-alley design is a festive mix of tie-dye banners, strings of colored lights, lawn chairs, sun signs and glimpses of feathered headdresses and other parade finery in the window of the shop Messinah’s (standing in for the play’s original Italian setting of Messina).
The actors wear bright, beachy clothes; sip Red Stripe beer; and sway to reggae and soca music provided by the disc jockey Brother (a commanding Craig Wallace).
Director Timothy Douglas sets Shakespeare’s wordplay-drunk romantic comedy in this urban-tropical atmosphere, and it works, for the most part. It helps not to think too much about where the concept stretches thin - such as when people refer to each other as princes and dukes and talk about bestowing fortunes upon future sons-in-law when everything and everyone appears more working-class than wealthy. If this is meant in an ironic sense, the application is awkward.
Having the male characters appearing as D.C. police officers and security personnel sets up an interesting tension between the revelers and the peacekeepers. It’s also fodder for some splendidly goofy physical clowning by inept guards Verges (Matt MacNelly) and his language-mangling sidekick Dogberry (Alex Perez).
However, the idea that the hero, Benedick (Howard W. Overshown) and his compadres Don Pedro (Tony Nam), Claudio (Alexis Camins) and the resentful Don John (Joel David Santner) are returning victorious from war and looking to let off a little steam before settling down is completely lost.
So are Don John’s villainous motivations to plot against his brother Don Pedro and his friends. In Shakespeare’s original version, Don John is a prisoner of war. In this production, he just seems like a sleazeball in too-tight pants and a devilish goatee.
Mr. Douglas also has shifted the balance of the play from the swaggering men to the strong women - which, on one hand, is a delightful turn of events and, on the other hand, allows for some vaguely mystical New Age dancing and much waving of arms.
The focus has its drawbacks, though, because the much-fought-over maiden Hero (Roxi Victorian) does not emerge as a particularly compelling character. More troubling is that the sharp-tongued Beatrice (Rachel Leslie), the bane-turned-babe of Benedick’s existence, roars in tough as nails from the get-go, and you believe she could break rum bottles over her head without flinching. Beatrice’s stridency has you wondering exactly what Benedick sees in her.
Mr. Overshown’s Benedick is a preening and self-satisfied authority figure who falls apart with beguiling haplessness at the very idea that Beatrice secretly loves him. The prospect of love softens and unbends Benedick, and Mr. Overshown adds an element of fear and intimidation (with good reason) in his responses to Beatrice - which brings an eccentric spark to their sexual attraction.
Yet for all the womanly dominance, it is the men who dance away with the show.
WHAT: “Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare
WHERE: Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 29.