Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nick Moramarco and Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 18, 2014
Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s more popular comedies. It’s also one that seems to lend itself particularly well to modern-dress variations. It’s been done in various historical and contemporary settings with relative seamlessness. St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest production is set in the late 1940s, and the consistence of theming is this version’s greatest strength.
In this version of Shakespeare’s classic “battle of wits” tale, the action takes place at an Italian villa circa 1948. Army officer Pedro (Stefan Ruprecht) and his comrades-in-arms Benedick (Phil Leveling) and Claudio (Michael Pierce), along with his disgruntled brother John (Wininger) are decked out in World War II-era uniforms. Beatrice (Ariel Roukaerts), Hero (Ashley Bauman) and their friends at the villa speak with light Italian accents here, as do the bumbling policeman Dogberry (James Enstall) and his assistant Verges (Nathaniel Carlson). This production borrows a page from the Joss Whedon film in making one of John’s cronies, Conrade (Angela Bubash), female and romantically involved with the scheming John, who wants nothing more than to frustrate the plans of his brother and his companions. Meanwhile, Beatrice and Benedick conduct their “merry war” while Pedro and friends hatch a plan to trick the quarreling pair into falling in love, and Claudio woos Hero with some interference from the scheming John. It’s the usual mixture of romantic comedy with moments of drama, all with a backdrop of 1940’s-era music.
This is a production not without faults, but what it does well, it does very well. The sense of time and place is well realized with the Big Band soundtrack, the simple set by Kyra Bishop, and especially Felia Davenport’s great era-specific costumes, from the Army uniforms to the colorful 40’s style dresses. There were some noticeable problems with the lighting on the night I saw the show, especially with a relatively long blackout in the middle of a scene that the actors admirably kept talking through. There was another shorter blackout near the end of the show, and I’m assuming these issues will be worked out as the run continues. Even with these little glitches, though, the technical elements of the show and overall atmosphere are among the highlights of this production.
In terms of the cast, this production deserves credit for great casting of the show’s most difficult role, John. Wininger, with his strong stage presence and weaselly voice and mannerisms, commands the stage and controls the action every time he appears. It’s an impressive performance in a mostly engaging but somewhat uneven cast. Leveling is a more laid-back Benedick than I’ve seen before, with Roukaerts a fiery Beatrice, and their scenes together are never boring, although their romantic chemistry is more “cute” than electric. Pierce is engaging as Claudio, although he is more convincing in his scenes of strong emotion–especially anger–than in his earlier scenes.. Bauman is fine as Hero, and Bubash comes across very well in her small-ish role as Conrade. Enstall and Carlson have some funny moments in their roles as the bumbling Dogberry and Verges, with their scenes providing some of the comic highlights of the show. There’s a lack of energy from some of the other cast members, although overall, this is a competent cast with a few real standouts.
The story of Much Ado About Nothing is full of romance, charm, and comedy with a few moments of drama and darkness, and different versions highlight different aspects of the story. This production has a bit more of a relaxed tone than I’ve seen before, and although there are some obvious flaws, it’s worth seeing. Especially with the 1940’s style and atmosphere, along with some amiable leading performances and a top-notch villain, St. Louis Shakespeare has crafted a well-themed, entertaining production.