We all know the adage about the glass being half-empty or half-full. If the current St. Louis Shakespeare staging of Much Ado About Nothing seems to have it both ways, that's in some measure because the play itself is so schizophrenic. Set on the isle of Sicily at the end of some now-forgotten minor war, this Italianate story basks in the noonday sun even as it masks dark passions.
At the outset of this Much Ado the glass is half-full. Director Carolyne Hood invests the evening with inventive touches. Even before the first word is spoken, the production sets a rousing tone with the return of the troops. Early in Act One, as that "plain-dealing villain" Don John enters from the wings, he brusquely pushes aside a scene changer who's moving a bench. It's a delicious nonverbal bit, as character-defining as that moment early in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train when Robert Walker bursts a child's balloon with his cigarette.
The front half of the story is highlighted by the verbal sparring between the caustic Beatrice (Suki Peters) and the heroic-if-dense Benedick (John Wolbers). Hood finds clever ways to stage the two scenes in which these reluctant lovers are deceived into believing that each is the object of the other's affections. Act One races along breezily, providing a cool antidote to a hot, humid night.
But Beatrice and Benedick are not the only characters who get deceived. If Act One is "all mirth and no matter," Act Two turns lugubriously serious. Just as Claudio helps to fool Benedick into believing he is loved, so does the villainous Don John dupe Claudio into believing he is being cuckolded by his fiancée, Hero. The key to any completely satisfying Much Ado is in the meshing: These two plots comedy and melodrama need to be smoothly integrated. At a certain point the audience has to know when to stop laughing and start caring.
The first indication that the plot is taking a back seat to a quest for laughter-at-any-cost occurs with the arrival of Dogberry, the local constable. In the text Dogberry is wonderfully reassuring, because he suggests that even the most hapless authorities can prevent mayhem. But as portrayed with indecipherable hysteria by Brian Mueller, this "shallow fool" is not so much incompetent as manic.
Next comes the pivotal wedding scene, in which the sweet Hero is spurned, first by her callow fiancé and then by her callous father. After everyone else departs the chapel, out of confusion and despair Beatrice and Benedick finally profess their love. The audience reaction to two lines will tell us whether viewers have accepted the mood shift from light to dark. The first occurs in the midst of the carnage. As Hero is being slandered by Claudio, Benedick mutters, "This looks not like a nuptial." When spoken as subtle understatement, it helps Benedick make the transition to the serious place where he needs to be for much of the rest of the evening. But here Benedick jumps up on a bench and shouts the line like Jerry Lewis. Not helpful to him or us.
The second line is even more telling. "Bid me do any thing for thee," Benedick implores. To which Beatrice replies, "Kill Claudio." The final third of the play and the introduction of all its new colors is knotted around those two words. An audience caught up in the story will react to that admonition with an intake of breath, perhaps even a gasp. But if viewers laugh at Beatrice as they do here, and as they did in the staging last February at Washington University then the production has missed the opportunity to convey the unique resonance that is the spine of this play.
Of course, it can be argued that a laugh is a laugh is a laugh, and the more the merrier. But sometimes laughs at the expense of story can lead to a long evening and reveal a glass half-empty.