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Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nick Moramarco and Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 18, 2014

Ariel Roukaerts, Phil Leveling Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Ariel Roukaerts, Phil Leveling
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

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.

Stefan Ruprecht, Michael Pierce, Adhley Bauman Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Stefan Ruprecht, Michael Pierce, Adhley Bauman
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

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Much Ado About Nothing

A Film of William Shakespeare’s Play

Adapted and Directed by Joss Whedon

MuchAdo

It’s Shakespeare at Joss Whedon’s house. That’s a big deal for a lot of fans of Whedon, Shakespeare, or both. Me, I’m in the second category. I’ve liked some of Whedon’s projects (The Avengers, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog), but despite my best efforts was never able to become a fan of perhaps his most famous work, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I know, I know. Maybe I have to turn in my “geek card” right now, but still, I have a lot of respect for Whedon and I absolutely love Shakespeare, so I was very curious to see this adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. It’s a collaboration of one of the most prominent creative artists of today and one of the most celebrated writers of all time, and that’s exciting no matter what. I just hoped that the movie would live up to my very lofty expectations, and for the most part, it did.

Much Ado is one of Shakepeare’s most popular comedies, famously filmed before (excellently) by Kenneth Branagh in 1994.  The approach here, though, is different—updating the story to the present day and setting it in and around the grounds of one elegantly appointed house as opposed to the Italian villa of the play and previous film.  The story of soldiers Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Benedick (Alexis Denisof), Claudio (Fran Kranz ) and company has been styled with more of a celebrity flair, with paparazzi and news cameras recording the arrival of the “soldiers” from an undefined “war” that is presented as some kind of big business deal instead of actual combat.  The “warriors” arrive from “battle” to relax and mingle at Don Pedro’s tony mansion  and there the action ensues in the forms of assorted romances, battles of wits, extravagant dinner parties and attempted revenge.  Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick verbally spar and Claudio woos Hero (Jillian Morgese), while Don Pedro’s vengeful brother Don John (Sean Maher) plots to get even with his brother any way possible, and police constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) and his crew of officers try in a hilariously bumbling fashion to maintain order. It’s a story full of comedy, genuine sentiment, romance, sexual tension, and simmering anger, all presented ideally in the modern setting by a strong cast containing many Whedon “regulars” who have been in several of his productions before, and it’s an excellent troupe.

Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof work together exceptionally well as Beatrice and Benedick.  Acker brings all the depth to the role of Beatrice that is needed, bringing out the character’s pain and sadness as well as her sharp wit, and Denisof makes a suitably preening Benedick.  Their scenes together crackle with energy, and their animosity and eventual romance are both eminently believable. Reed Diamond is a stable presence as Don Pedro, and Kranz has all the earnestness mingled with self-doubt necessary to be an ideal Claudio.  His scenes with Morgese as Hero are alternately touching, infuriating, heartbreaking and ultimately heartwarming.  Maher is a truly menacing Don John, and the added dynamic in this film of casting his crony Conrade as a woman (Riki Lindhome) adds a unique twist.  Fillion, in the clownish role of Dogberry, was also ideally cast, bringing both charm and ridiculousness to the role in equal measure. Overall, it was an extremely strong ensemble that brought out all the comedy and drama of the material with a sense of style and bravado that was matched perfectly by the filming.

This film was made on a reportedly very low budget,  but doesn’t look it. It was also filmed on location almost entirely at Whedon’s actual house, so in the hands of a lesser director this movie could easily end up looking like an elaborate real estate ad, and even though it doesn’t go that far, the house–along with its elaborate grounds–really is one of the major “stars” of this film. The black-and-white filming showcases the setting ideally, bringing out the details in every scene and adding a stylized air to the proceedings.  The audience is left to imagine the colors of the furniture, the greenery in the garden, the food in the kitchen, and for this reason these items are made to appear all the more colorful in the imagining. The excellent filming and sophisticated soundtrack sets an upcsale, classy atmosphere for these proceedings, helping in bringing Shakespeare’s text into the modern day and allowing the audience to approach the material in a fresh light.

There are so many great elements to this film, and the overall air is one of sophistication, intelligence and real wit.  It’s a Shakespeare adaptation for the 21st Century that manages to be both timeless and current at the same time. It reaffirms my love of Shakespeare and makes me want to check out more of Whedon’s work.  It’s a winning collaboration that I think will stand up even better on repeated viewings.  It looks like Joss Whedon not only invited Shakespeare to his house, but he lets his audience join in for the party, and the experience is more than worthwhile.

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