Belly up to the bar, boys, and take a swig of iambic pentameter. It slides down the gullet real easy. Much ado is being made about the fact that the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis has relocated Much Ado About Nothing, this summer's annual production, from Renaissance Sicily to the American frontier. Swords and poniards have been replaced by lassos and enough hardware to gun down every squirrel in Forest Park.
In her pursuit of clarity, director Jane Page is determined that no story points will be missed. The addition of a second-floor bedroom over the saloon, for instance, allows us to see things acted out that the script only describes. Don John enters to a musical theme from a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, informing us before his first word is uttered that he's the bad guy. (Matt Penn brings jaunty attitude to one of the Bard's drier villains.) This is Shakespeare filled out, and Page's embellishments are often helpful.
There are, however, certain festival conceits that remain inexplicable. When a set has ten count 'em, ten entrances onto the mainstage, what is to be gained by having characters enter from the lawn? As the actors timidly tiptoe through the dark park, hoping not to trip over a rut or step into a hole, their very presence pulls the viewer's eye away from what's happening on the stage and becomes a distraction.
But there's something even more worrisome about this return to the wild, Wild West. After the production gets the saloon brawls and the square dancing out of its system, it still must confront the text, which at its core tells a tale about soldiers returning home from war. To transform Benedick (Gregory Wooddell) from a braggart soldier to a laid-back, good-ol'-boy trail master may seem harmless enough, but an actor who plays Benedick needs that military bearing in order to make the role more than a mere loudmouth. Here, clad in cowboy gear that's much too similar to the outfit worn by his trail-hand cohort Claudio, there's no sense that Benedick is more important than anyone else. He doesn't register; it's easy to lose him in the crowd.
No such problem for Beatrice, the saloon manager whose scarlet frock is highly visible. Jenny Mercein's bullwhip-flinging entrance might be ideal for Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew but is only a showy effect here. At the opening-night performance, the bullwhip failed to crack, which was no loss. Mercein's Beatrice is appealing precisely because she is not a shrew. Except for when her nemesis Benedick is around, Mercein conveys the pleasant-spirited nature to which the play alludes.
Much Ado is fraught with multiple deceptions. Some of these deceptions are carefree, but others lead to near tragedy. The challenge for any production is to persuade the audience to accept both the light and the dark, and you cannot do that with cosmetics alone. But to its credit, this staging gets the most difficult sequence right. Late in the evening the innocent young ingénue is about to marry when she is falsely accused of being a strumpet. Without so much as a shred of evidence, her father vilely disowns his daughter. (Throughout this improbable turn of events indeed, throughout the entire evening Steve Isom is both forceful and credible. Solid work.)
The stage clears. Only Beatrice and Benedick remain. Then, in a beautifully written scene, our two bickering would-be-but-not-quite lovers finally profess their feelings. Trail master and saloonkeeper? No way. Wooddell and Mercein are two actors suspended in time, finding the eternal humanity in words that were written more than 400 years ago. They reveal their emotions with utter simplicity and true tenderness. Why do theatergoers tolerate Shakespeare turned upside down and twisted inside out? In the hope of ever so rarely getting to experience moments like this.