When you're hot, you're hot. William Shakespeare was sizzling in 1599, when it is believed he wrote Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night all in the same year. Twelfth Night and As You Like It remain two of Shakespeare's most beloved plays. But Much Ado About Nothing, which is currently on view at Washington University in its first St. Louis staging in much too long, is the poor stepsister in the Bard's canon of comedies.
Why should that be? Much Ado has one of the most direct through-lines of all of Shakespeare's plays. Compared, for instance, to the dense exchanges between Oberon and Titania in the much more popular A Midsummer Night's Dream, this story is a breeze to follow. The reluctant lovers Beatrice and Benedick are ever clashing in a "skirmish of wit" that still remains hilarious. Although the moody Don John is "not of many words," he directly states, "It must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain." What could be clearer than this?
Some scholars don't get it. Why, they ask, when Shakespeare was so precise about labeling his scripts as either comedies or tragedies, does Much Ado mix humor and drama? Why does the same play combine the delightful verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick with the more intense account of the cruel ruin of Hero's reputation? The pundits fail to understand that these two story lines are not in competition; on the contrary, each is dependent on the other. By itself, neither plot would fill out an evening. But in joining them together, Shakespeare concocted a theatrical double feature that offers something for everyone.
The capacious Edison Theatre is never an ideal venue for student Shakespeare. Wisely, director Henry L. Schvey (who has set the play in 1920s Italy) has wisely blocked off the upstage area by placing the unit set of Leonato's palazzo at midstage. When he needs more space, Schvey spills his story out into the aisles.
Certain other directorial choices, however, are questionable. Even before the first line of dialogue is uttered, Leonato is established as a patron of the arts. Beatrice is a sculptor; the grounds are abundant with artists and models. It's a lovely way to visualize the production's universe. But all too soon that motif is dropped. Too bad. It might have been useful in advancing the action. Surely an activity is needed in the garden scene when Hero and her attendants deceive Beatrice into believing that Benedick loves her. As staged here, the humorless scene is flatter than last week's Mardi Gras beer. Schvey found his solution if only he'd use it.
Laura Harrison's Beatrice also could use some rethinking. This Beatrice was not born under a dancing star; her verbal attacks on Benedick lack lightness. Harrison is at her most appealing not when she's battling Benedick but in those scenes where sincerity is required. And yet when Beatrice' most important line of the evening her sharp charge to Benedick to "kill Claudio" elicits a huge laugh, it's clear the performance is out of joint.
In this battle of the sexes, the men have the upper hand. Justin Joseph's Benedick is a genial combination of panache and naiveté. Imagine a college-age Tom Hanks in the role, and you'll come close to Joseph's version. Matt Goldman brings the proper authority to Don Pedro, captain of the band of brothers that invades Leonato's home. As Leonato, Ian Pearson is a young actor in the unenviable position of playing an older man, but he effectively pulls it off.
There's almost a sense that Much Ado doesn't have a lot of supporting players. Characters like Leonato, Don Pedro and even that dunderhead Dogberry are so colorfully delineated, you might think that they're all leading roles; it's just that some are onstage more than others. Together they conjoin to make Much Ado About Nothing one of Shakespeare's most underappreciated yet accessible pleasures.