Rapier wit and cutting observation; lies, laughter and love, with a stiff dose of betrayal. Such is the emotional arsenal deployed for Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare’s strategic guide to the “merry war” between the sexes.
This month, the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences will present Much Ado as its spring mainstage production.
Performances in Edison Theatre will begin at 8 p.m. Feb. 24-25, at 2 p.m. Feb. 26, at 8 p.m. March 3-4 and at 2 p.m. March 5.
Written about 1598, Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s later comedies, though its flirtations with disaster and complicated morality — good characters who act badly — prefigure the tragic-comic sensibility of subsequent “problem plays” such as Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well.
“Like all Shakespearean comedy, Much Ado deals with love and marriage,” said director Henry I. Schvey, Ph.D., professor and PAD chair. “But it’s also about misunderstanding, misinterpretation and disguise. The entire play is about the ways we mask our identity and hide our true feelings, literally and figuratively.”
The plot of Much Ado centers on Claudio, a young nobleman in the army of Don Pedro, who falls in love with Hero, daughter of Leonato, the local governor. Don Pedro, learning of Claudio’s feelings, offers to woo Hero on his lieutenant’s behalf but Don John, Don Pedro’s misanthropic half-brother, determines to wreck the union by deceiving Claudio about Hero’s fidelity.
For many audiences, the story of Claudio and Hero is “upstaged” by the parallel romance of Beatrice, Hero’s cousin, and Benedick, Claudio’s comrade. Trading clever barbs and courtly wordplay, this worldly couple transforms the denial of love — Beatrice, for example, vows to never marry — into a paradoxical form of courtship.
“In some ways, Claudio and Hero represent Shakespeare’s notion of traditional love,” Schvey said. “Beatrice and Benedick are more experimental and progressive. They live in a world of banter, yet their battles of wit mine the question of women’s rights and even the possibility of a true equality between the sexes.
“The play seems to leap out of its own century and land directly into ours.”
Conversely, “I think Shakespeare also investigates the insufficiency of clever wordplay,” Schvey added. “The audience knows that Beatrice and Benedick are destined for one another, but the characters themselves must be fooled into acknowledging what has been in their hearts all along.”
Schvey previously directed Much Ado for the Leiden English Speaking Theatre, the company he founded in the Netherlands in 1975 and led until coming to St. Louis in 1987. For this production, he has kept the original Italian setting but updated the time period to the early 1920s.
“So often, when an audience sees Shakespeare done in 16th-century style, they hold it at a remove,” Schvey said. “My hope is that relocating the story to a more modern period will enable audiences to see the connections to our own time while still truly appreciating the revolutionary nature of Beatrice’s rebellion.”
The cast of 21 is led by Laura Harrison and Justin Joseph as Beatrice and Benedick, and by Rob Klemisch and Barrie Golden as Claudio and Hero.
Also starring are Matt Goldman as Don Pedro; Ian Pearson as Leonato; Andrew Byrd as Don John; and Rob McLemore as the watchman Dogberry.
Sets are by Marie Anne Chiment, visiting artist-in-residence. Costumes are by Bonnie Kruger, senior lecturer. Original music is by William Lenihan, lecturer in music in Arts & Sciences.
Choreography is by Christine Knoblauch-O’Neal, senior lecturer and director of the Ballet Program. Dramaturg is Joy Ryan, a master’s degree candidate in drama.
Tickets are $15 — $9 for students, senior citizens and WUSTL faculty and staff — and are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office, 935-6543, and all MetroTix outlets. For more information, call 935-6543.