CAMBRIDGE — In “Much Ado About Nothing,’’ love is a sport, a kind of verbal volleyball played at a very high level by Beatrice and Benedick, those quick-witted precursors to Sam and Diane.
As with that sparring “Cheers’’ duo, there’s not a lot of tension surrounding the will-they-or-won’t-they question when it comes to Beatrice and Benedick. It’s clear that they will; indeed, it’s hinted that they might already have.
The fun of Shakespeare’s comedy lies in the speed and caliber of their repartee as they edge combatively but inevitably toward their union, quip by quip, barb by barb. And there is plenty of fun to be had in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s sprightly, gender-switching new production of “Much Ado About Nothing.’’
ASP artistic director Christopher V. Edwards is at the helm, demonstrating vigor and creativity in directing his first production at the company he began leading last year. To judge by a director’s note in the playbill, Edwards sought to emphasize the play’s “darker undertones,’’ but this is on balance a pretty sunny “Much Ado,’’ set in the present day, with contemporary touches that include the cast singing tunes by Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus. More notably, Edwards has opted to make the play’s other pair of lovers, Claudio and Hero, a same-sex couple, with Claudio a woman rather than a man. It’s an approach in which (to borrow a line from another great poet) something’s lost and something’s gained.
Brooke Hardman and Omar Robinson star as Beatrice and Benedick, and they prove to be a splendidly well-matched pair who generate the chemistry vital to making “Much Ado’’ work. Hardman brings zest and personality to what another character describes as a “merry war’’ between Beatrice and Benedick, but the actress also finds, and reveals, the traces of melancholy and vulnerability in the outwardly insouciant Beatrice. Robinson, who played the title role in ASP’s 2016 production of “Hamlet,’’ delivers a Benedick of charisma, wit, and physical dexterity.
Benedick and Claudio are among the soldiers led by Don Pedro (a stolid Avery Bargar) who have arrived, triumphant in battle, in Messina, whose governor is Leonato (a fervent Mark Soucy), uncle to Beatrice and father to Hero. A quick-building romance between Claudio (a topnotch Esme Allen) and Hero (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) falls apart when Claudio is deceived into believing Hero has been unfaithful and spurns her at the altar. Claudio has arrived at that mistaken belief after witnessing a fake tryst in a window chamber with a character disguised as Hero, a ruse suggested by the servant Borachio (Abigail Dickson) and orchestrated by Don Pedro’s brother, the villainous Don John (Alejandro Simoes).
Though Shakespeare was no feminist, he took pains in “Much Ado,’’ as in “Othello’’ and “The Winter’s Tale,’’ to illustrate how ready men are to believe the worst of women, on the slenderest of evidence. (A song from “Much Ado’’ also addresses the male capacity for duplicity, noting that “Men were deceivers ever.’’) That indictment of men evaporates when Claudio is a woman rather than a man, leaving us with the bland, if true, notion that mistrust is a universal human trait, regardless of gender, that can capsize relationships. That said, the decision by Edwards to have Claudio and Hero both be women fits with the overall theme of the play, which champions the right to love whomever we choose.
There are ways not related to gender, though, in which a “Much Ado’’ set in the present cannot help but seem at odds with the text. Consider Claudio’s infuriated reaction to Hero’s seeming lack of chastity — a fury shared by Hero’s dear old dad, Leonato, who immediately wishes his daughter dead and tries to attack her physically after being told of the phony tryst. That insistence on female virginity seems to belong to an earlier time period than the here-and-now in which this “Much Ado’’ unfolds. (Allen’s Claudio reacts with indifference when told — falsely — that Barnett-Mulligan’s Hero has died — a reaction, rooted in Shakespeare’s text, that makes it hard to swallow the play’s ostensibly happy ending.)
Helping to set matters straight for Claudio and Hero by uncovering Don John’s ruse is a Keystone Kops assemblage of inept constables in yellow parkas, led by the malapropism-prone Dogberry, portrayed by Simoes. Though the constables overstay their welcome — one feels the need of relief from the comic relief — Simoes does demonstrate impressive aplomb while scooting in and out of scenes on a hoverboard.
But it’s another deliberately anachronistic touch that provides the production’s most memorable, even spine-tingling, moment: when Hardman, who has a lovely voice, leads the cast in an exquisite rendition of “Sandcastles.’’ It’s a ballad from “Lemonade,’’ the album by Beyoncé — who like Shakespeare, knows that love is something worth making much ado about.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Christopher V. Edwards. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At Multicultural Arts Center, Cambridge, through May 6. Tickets $25-$55, 866-811-4111, www.actorsshakespeareproject.org