What worldly bloke with a decent IQ wouldn’t eventually succumb to Meisle’s chicly feline Beatrice? The actress, a late-inning substitution for Veanne Cox, who departed during rehearsals, is an ideal Beatrice: She projects both beauty and a breachable aloofness, an illusion sustained by a playful embrace of the character’s language (and one disarming dip in a very cold fountain). Smith’s Benedick proves to be her fitting partner; a foundation of his portrayal is an endearing given: The more this courtly Benedick mopes and protests and glances back over his shoulder at her, the surer we are that he’s head over heels for his tart-tongued adversary.
“Were they but a week married, they would talk themselves mad,” declares Beatrice’s uncle, Leonato, in a compellingly forceful turn by Adrian Sparks. It’s true: These well-mannered exhibitionists will drive each other crazy and revel in the public fusses they eternally kick up.
With the polish of this high-end comic couple — and at the play’s opposite end, the surefire lunacy of its low-comedy pairing of the addle-pated watchmen Dogberry (Ted van Griethuysen) and Verges (that rascally scene-stealer, Floyd King) — the company’s new “Much Ado” has lots of good things going for it. And in many ways, McSweeny’s handling of this comedy’s buoyant plotting is visually and even conceptually superior to his last effort, a “Merchant of Venice” last season that he transplanted from Italy to Manhattan’s immigrant-filled Lower East Side.
This time, the very specific location and time is Cuba in the 1930s, a setting that retains the sun-baked sensuality of Shakespeare’s Messina and gives the director, composer Steven Cahill and choreographer Marcos Santana opportunities for a few conga-drumming, hip-bouncing fiestas. It also provides set designer Lee Savage with the inspiration for a gorgeous set — the central, open space of Leonato’s hacienda, complete with a weather-worn garden statue of Cupid. The dresses and satin robes that costume designer Clint Ramos drapes on the women of “Much Ado” aptly reflect the sleek tailoring of the period.
Assigning a few of the actors Spanish accents and changing a few words here and there —“Much Ado” now includes references to Havana, pesos, a mantilla and the cha-cha — doesn’t do any harm. Not overly banal, either, is the arrival of Dogberry and his ragtag band of men chanting the well-known Cuban patriotic song “Guantanamera.” (Maybe one verse would have been enough.) But even though two of the other characters in the retinue were originally given the indisputably English names of Hugh Oatcake and George Seacoal, did the director really have to rename them, cringingly, Juan Huevos (Phil Hosford) and Jose Frijoles (Carlos J. Gonzalez)? The joke is coarser than this “Much Ado” deserves, and the glib cultural referencing in general comes across as a little patronizing.