By William Shakespeare (Repertory Theatre of St. Louis)

Oct 20, 1999 at 4:00 am
The concept of the Rep's production of William Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado about Nothing sets the play in the United States just after World War I. Most important men of the cast still wear the ugly U.S. Army uniforms of the War to End All Wars, and the women players wear the becoming longish skirts and shirtwaists of 1918. The '20s had yet to roar, and it was still genteel: Rules of conduct were both adhered to and enforced. Even the supposedly classless United States had an acknowledged aristocracy, and every town had its first families. This production's setting is apposite if not terribly original -- a PBS production in the '70s set the play just after the Spanish-American War, which is not all that different in costume, social mores, etc.

The production's set, by Joseph P. Tilford, is dazzling in its handsome, better-than-life realism: a small park, complete with a bronze statue of a Civil War soldier; big shady trees; a stone bridge over a good-sized pond. From the coloring of the foliage, one would assume the month to be September and the weather delightful. So as the players begin entering the set (while the St. Louis playgoers are still finding their seats), everything is ready for a pleasant evening of high comedy, spiced with a dark crisis to make things interesting. Unfortunately, what the audience gets is farce.

Let's think about decorum. In 1918, the first citizen of Hometown, Ohio (or Missouri), a visiting aristocratic general and friend of the mayor, and a young officer who is soon to be the mayor's son-in-law would not appear in a public park in the nicest part of town not only drinking but drunk. Period. No argument. Such conduct, inappropriate even in today's anarchic society, would have been unthinkable then. Prohibition, for heaven's sake, was just around the corner, and city fathers, aristocratic generals and young officers and gentlemen would not, especially in the Midwest, flout convention so outrageously.

But the historicity of a play's conceit and execution is immaterial. More important is the essence of the play. The scene under discussion (quite funny as written -- the drunkenness is excessive) is only one instance of many where characters are wrenched out of their obvious context and forced into another. Much Ado about Nothing concerns the dishonoring of a virtuous young woman of good birth by an aristocrat and her own gently born fiancé, tricked into first believing ill of and then publicly shaming the young woman. If the aristocrat and the young officer clown about throughout the play and are drunken figures of farce just a few minutes earlier, then what's the particular horror in their behaving as they do toward her? Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon, is the ethical center of this play. If his standing is diminished, as it is throughout this production, then the chaos of immorality that is the young woman's betrayal becomes mere bad luck.

Much Ado about Nothing's seriousness is probably undermined to make it more amusing, as if poor Shakespeare just hadn't made enough fun with the high comedy of Beatrice and Benedick or the low humor of Dogberry and his village cohorts. In fact, Robert Elliott's skilled and goofy clowning as Dogberry loses its impact because the inappropriate clowning elsewhere has destroyed the play's balance and contrasting humors.

Joneal Joplin, despite the drunk scene, plays Leonato, the town's mayor, with both dignity and ease of manner. As the principal figures of comic fun, Christa Scott-Reed as Beatrice and Don Burroughs as Benedick begin rather too boldly, but they moderate as the play progresses. Even subdued, however, Burroughs leaves toothmarks on every piece of scenery. John Rensenhouse is a disaster as Don John -- wilting about the stage, bleating, wheezing and sniveling out his lines to no discernable purpose.

But why not? If comedy is to become farce, then one might as well turn manner into mannerism.

This production does not trust Much Ado about Nothing as it is written. Farcing it up by splashing about in water and by adding drunkenness to scenes or becoming shocking by calling the character played by a young actor of color "boy" far more times than the text's single instance say that the play isn't funny or shocking enough for the Rep's audience. It also says that the Rep's audience isn't up to a serious production of the play.