Nothing Doing

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
By William Shakespeare
St. Louis Shakespeare Company

The St. Louis Shakespeare Company's spirited production of Much Ado About Nothing, which opened last weekend at the Grandel Theatre and will play this weekend as well, is generally amusing and on occasion touching. Its cast is strong here and weak there, with consistently problematic diction, which the notoriously anti-acoustic Grandel Theatre does nothing at all to help. The forward motion is strong but occasionally slowed by an actor or two who overplay their parts and use a leaden trudge to do so.

Most people love Much Ado for the verbal swordplay between the lady Beatrice (played by Donna Northcott as a brisk but sharp-tongued maiden aunt) and her sparring partner and reluctant lover, Benedick (B. Weller). Weller is consistently clear in speech, and his acting becomes more subtle and nuanced in every new part he undertakes. Beatrice is usually allowed to win the couple's jousting matches, but Northcott, both out of innate generosity, I suspect, and a strong sense of the play's balance, allows Weller room to give Benedick a breadth of feeling and an aura of dignity the part seldom receives.

It is always interesting to see an accomplished actor in a lesser role, and watching Mack Harrell play Leonato is an excellent lesson in shining forth while keeping one's character in proper balance. Harrell's Leonato is so gracious and genial a host to the play's action that when it comes time for him to become a badly injured father, his pain in his innocent daughter Hero's damaged reputation is as piteous as hers -- more, perhaps, because we see more of him than his daughter.

The decision to set this Much Ado in old Mexico gave Teresa Doggett a wonderful excuse for exuberant costumes, especially for the women but for the men as well. Harrell rejoiced in a snuff-colored frock coat but was eclipsed by the bright purple worn by Bruce Collins, who plays his brother, Antonio. Because the younger men of the cast are soldiers, Doggett found them reasonably interesting uniforms but gave them colorful waistcoats, braces and kerchiefs. Northcott's gowns are particularly rich, and she wears them with complete authority.

M.T. Schmidt's set would have been OK if only it hadn't been moved around so much and so unnecessarily. Not only did an occasional change block sight lines, but the dizzying motion of the changes took up time better spent watching actors act. Bob Koerner, Much Ado's usually imaginative director, should cut back on the number of set permutations and perambulations and put a stopwatch on some of the low-comic scenes, too.

-- Harry Weber

SHIRTS & SKIN
Written and performed by Tim Miller
That Uppity Theater Company

Creating intimacy in a theater requires art and artifice. It is, after all, a game played to create truth. In dark spaces, we gather to witness a tale, experience a view or participate in a world that we wouldn't ordinarily see or know. Fact is, there are no hard-and-fast rules on how to do this, just a constantly changing collaboration of artists that eventually and occasionally yields theatrical life. So for most audiences, the notion of performance art, or solo performance, creates a problem. Without the mask of theatricality, without the safety of the game, going to theater becomes, in an interior sense, more risky, more challenging, because nothing is there to make things "safer." All there is is you and the performer, and that relationship, as it builds, can become very intense and intimate. And in the end, if done well, it transcends being a monologue and becomes theater.

Performance artist/writer Tim Miller returned to St. Louis last weekend for That Uppity Theater Company's AC/DC series, and, to nearly sold-out houses, he showed how important and enjoyable this emerging form can be. The show was titled Shirts & Skin, and its basic metaphor was nondescript. Miller hung different shirts on a clothesline, shirts representing the different colors and ethos of different periods of his life. What was easiest to miss about Miller's work was the remarkable craft that was masked by the simplicity of the evening's concept. Miller offered his tales with beguiling simplicity and ease, but the strength of the tales and the solid use of dramatic structure showed Miller's fine writing ability. There was a literary quality to the evening, which is not often found in performance art. (Lord knows Holly Hughes was always all over the place with her stories.)

As an actor, Miller is uncommonly sharp. He bounded around the St. Mar-continued on page 74continued from page 72cus stage and audience with sharp agility, and, throughout, he was often quick-witted, easily commenting on little mishaps and nuances. In sharing his reflections and his stories, Miller created significant distance between himself as object and narrator -- perhaps the hardest to do in this form but ironically the most important. The fundamental challenge of Miller's work, and the reason he has remained an important gay artist, is that he challenges his audiences in a manner that most gay writers and artists do not. Although many artists isolate the particular instances that are common language in the gay experience -- coming out, the first relationships, the family sagas of operatic proportion -- Miller takes it all further. He asks his audiences to see the motion of the relationships between the experiences, how the connections between the experiences -- the cities, the lovers, the friendships through time -- have an identity just as strong as the experiences themselves. When he looks at the whole cloth, he spies the shape and direction of the weave, along with the individual colors and texture. It's a subtle and novel notion, and it's what separates Miller, or at least this piece of his, from the rest. In the end, this notion of personal community spreads like warm sunlight over the audience, and at Saturday night's performance, the crowd's comfort and ease were palpable.

-- Mike Isaacson

TOMATO PLANT GIRL
By Wesley Middleton
Metro Theater Company

Metro Theater Company celebrated the beginning of its 26th season by presenting an open staging of its newest theater piece for younger audiences, Wesley Middleton's Tomato Plant Girl, in the newly refurbished New City School Founders' Hall auditorium.

The work deals with tough stuff. Its protagonist, Little Girl (Monica Holeczy), finds herself bullied, dissed and extorted by Bossy Best Friend (Carlyn Armintrout). Bossy Best Friend even allows her own tomato plant to die of neglect (saying it's Little Girl's fault), then forces Little Girl through emotional blackmail to give up her healthy tomato plant, which Bossy Best Friend also kills by neglect. But then Bossy Best Friend leaves on a shopping vacation and Little Girl finds a new friend, Tomato Plant Girl (Kate Frank). It takes Little Girl a while to learn that her new friend follows her own rules, not Bossy Best Friend's (filtered through Little Girl). When this happens, however, Little Girl discovers that her own rules are better for her than Bossy Best Friend's and that sometimes it's better to be a bit lonely than bullied.

The children in the audience particularly enjoyed the literal earthiness and related rowdiness Frank brought to Tomato Plant Girl, obviously identified with Holeczy's Little Girl, and viewed with horror the bad manners, vibes and worldview of Armintrout's Bossy Best Friend. As an (arguable) adult, I admired the subversiveness of the work -- "trust yourself" is a motto that children are seldom taught. Metro Theater Company, however, always has subversive, life-affirming messages for its patrons, and Tomato Plant Girl is one of its best efforts at mixing charming theater with necessary but seldom given instruction.

-- Harry Weber

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