Joss Whedon has famously filmed Shakespeare's comedy in 12 days at his home, using actor friends from previous projects. Done in modern dress using Shakespeare's language, filmed in black and white, scored with smooth guitar jazz, it's a pleasant diversion and a lovely valentine to language.
But oh my goodness, does that plot creak!
This is the hazard of updating the presentation at all, and really, somebody has got to be brave and do something about it. For those of you who have a hard time remembering which plot goes with which generic play title (I'm looking at you As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and All's Well That Ends Well) I will summarize.
The prince, Don Pedro is home from war with an entourage of warriors, including the young and callow Claudio and the bitter Benedick. They arrive at the home of Leonato (played here by Agent Coulson from the Avengers movies), where Claudio falls in love at first sight with Leonato's daughter Hero. Also present is Hero's cousin Beatrice, who has a sketchy past with Benedick--they bicker so they must be in love!
Don Pedro has defeated his brother, Don John, and John is nursing a major grudge. Instead of accepting his brother's mercy, John plots with his few accomplices to spoil everybody's happiness. The night before the wedding of Claudio and Hero, he arranges for Claudio and Don Pedro to see a woman in Hero's bedroom "entertaining" a man. (Of course, it's the maid, not Hero at all, as the audience knows.) Claudio accuses Hero of being unchaste at the altar in front of the entire assembled wedding guests and she faints from shame. It is decided to put out the rumor that Hero has died, the plot gets uncovered, Claudio accepts his punishment is to marry one of Leonato's nieces, who turns out to be Hero. Benedick and Beatrice also admit they are in love, and Don John gets captured. Happiness abounds!
Except--it is nearly impossible to swallow this plot these days. Claudio might as well be dressed in red flags from the Bad Boyfriend department at Sears--he's rash, jealous, intemperate, and rude. When he first falls for Hero, he's unwilling to court her himself, so he lets Don Pedro do it on his behalf. Then it takes just a whisper from Don John for him to become convinced that Don Pedro is going to keep Hero for himself. So he rushes in, accuses everyone of playing him for a fool, and that isn't enough to alienate Hero? No, it isn't.
Now, to be fair, it's got to be awful to see your fiancee messing around with another man on your wedding night, even today. But the shock isn't that she's no longer a virgin--which is the substance of the Shakespeare text. No, the shock is that she's sleeping with somebody else, which has got to make you think twice about whether this marriage has any chance at all. But then, Claudio the Clod doesn't bring it up with Hero, or Leonato, he doesn't do anything sensible. Instead, he goes for the biggest humiliation he can arrange, by waiting until Hero has already said "I do" before he goes at her for being a "common stale." Don Pedro joins in, and even her father accepts the accusations at face value.
That poor girl. Nobody asks her "where were you last night?" Nobody talks to her at all. They do ask Beatrice if she was Hero's "bedfellow" last night, and for some reason--and for the first time ever--she wasn't. Nobody asks why, or where anybody was, or how Don John knew about this, or even questioned whether it might possibly be some other woman they saw. (Ashley Johnson, who plays the maid Margaret, is a solid 6 inches shorter than Jillian Morgese's Hero, and is an entirely different body type.) No, let's just get all the old, white, privileged men to scream at the scared girl, disown her, humiliate her, and then they can go on their merry way--back to their rooms in Leonato's house, because that's not awkward at all.
And then, the "punishment!" Claudio feels bad that Hero died, but only after he finds out that he had been duped, because under those circumstances, her death is unmerited. Because, whaaaa? Deflowered girls are apparently universally considered to be better off dead, I guess, depending on the whim of the men around her. (Beatrice, however, is shown to have slept with Benedick in the unspecified past, and Margaret seems to be allowed to live as well.) Anyway, Claudio's "punishment" for having "unjustly" caused Hero's death is that he has to agree to marry some other female relation of Leonato's, who he is promised looks exactly like Hero. Of course, she turns out to be Hero, revealed only when he agrees to marry whoever Leonato puts in front of him.
Does anybody ask Hero if she still wants to be married to this idiot? Does anybody foresee anything but domestic violence and unwarranted jealousy in this relationship's future? This is where a reaaaaaaly long engagement would be a really good idea. Even better? Kick him out of your house and get a restraining order.
But, if you can overlook that horrible plot--and I couldn't really--the rest of the production is a delight. The lines are delivered crisply and the Beatrice/Benedick banter is worth the price of admission.