Review of Much Ado About Nothing at St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

    Much Ado About Nothing was originally scheduled for St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s 2020 season. The pandemic scuttled that idea, and the festival went in another direction in 2021. This year, the festival has returned to Much Ado. If ever a production were worth waiting for, it’s this one.

    The play opens with soldiers returning in triumph from war—in this case, World War I. The director, Bruce Longworth, has obviously thought through the implications of the changing play’s period. For example, he has provided an explanation for the extravagant hospitality Leonato offers to Don Pedro and the soldiers. The costumes of Leonato and his brother Antonio show they in the business of providing hospitality. Another period-specific addition is an astonishing display of virtuosity by the members of a color guard: Mack Carter, Michael Foley, and Andrew Harmon.

    The characters who matter most in Much Ado are Beatrice and Benedict, who “never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.” These contests are said to be a “merry war,” but Claire Karpen as Beatrice and Stanton Nash as Benedick are playing for keeps in their first scene together, which crackles with indignation. When Beatrice accuses Benedick of ending the fracas before she has a chance to reply, Karpen’s line reading conveys a deep understanding of the moment. Such insight is the rule rather than the exception when Longworth is the director.

    Nash and Karpen display their mastery of physical comedy when their characters eavesdrop on friends who are trying to trick Beatrice and Benedick into falling in love. The water feature on the set has a hilarious role when Beatrice is being deceived.

    The most challenging scene for Beatrice and Benedick is the one in which they confess their love for each other while coping with the trauma of Claudio’s fierce denunciation of Hero at what should have been their wedding. The remarkable performances by Nash and Karpen encompass all the emotional complexity of this encounter.

    Liam Craig’s beautiful way of speaking is a delightful contrast to the habitual malapropisms of Dogberry, the constable of the watch. Craig and Whit Reichert as Verges are a comic dream team, but they provide a wonderful moment of poignancy, too.

    Chauncy Thomas endows Don Pedro with the gravity a true prince. Sorab Wadia gives the malevolent Don John a constricted voice that suits his suppressed resentment.

    Carmen Cecilia Retzer’s Hero and Kenneth Hamilton’s Claudio rise to both the comic and the dramatic challenges of their parts. So do Christopher Hickey’s Leonato and Tim Kidwell’s Antonio. Gary Glasgow gives Friar Francis the compassion and the moral authority he needs to set a path forward after the interrupted wedding. Glasgow is unrecognizable as in his other role as George Seacoal of the watch.

    The exemplary performers in supporting roles include Aaron Orion Baker as Borachio, Jenna Steinberg as Margaret, Maison Kelly as Ursula, Alex Rudd as Conrade, Carl Overly Jr. as Litarius and Hugh Oatcake, and Michael Thanh Tran as Balthasar, and Alfie Dinsdale.

    The musicians, Brien Seyle and Matt Pace, play their own fine compositions. Choreographer Brandon Fink, live sound designer Rusty Wandall, and sound effects designer Kareem Deanes all make admirable contributions.

    Josh Smith’s scenic design creates an inviting Italianate plaza with lots of space for the action. Dorothy Englis’s costumes and John Wylie’s lighting add to the visual splendor.

    Much Ado About Nothing continues through June 26 in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography