Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s production of Much Ado About Nothing claims to be Gunsmoke meets Shakespeare and melds the campy television American western style with the heightened Renaissance poetry of Shakespeare. In so doing, it turns Much Ado About Nothing into a slapstick romantic western comedy.
It took me a minute to adjust to hearing Shakespeare’s words spoken in a thoroughly western setting, but soon the play and the setting began to mesh very well. The story is set in the small town of Messina and follows the escapades of two sets of lovers: the quipping, fiercely independent Beatrice (Liza de Weer) and Benedick (Grant Goodman); and the sweet, young Claudio (Ian Kramer) and Hero (Paige Herschell). Like the American West, the town of Messina is a wild place. The men come home from wars, there are sheriffs and there are duels. It is a place where men rule – and women are subject to them.
For a modern audience, the western backdrop also highlights several ideas in the play: ideas about marriage, freedom and romantic love. To Americans, the West is often thought of as a place where you go to find your freedom, to be single and to live out your dream. By placing the play in a familiar landscape like the Wild West, the plight of freedom-loving independent characters like Beatrice and Benedick come into focus.
Shakespeare’s language does not feel at all out of place in this world, and it occurred to me that the language of 19th century Wild West was probably much closer to Shakespeare’s than our own language. The language did the job of placing the audience in another time and culture. Western accents are used sparingly by the minor characters, and this is effective as it immediately puts those characters into a class that the audience can identify with.
The production was often very campy and very much in the American Western tradition in terms of set design and costumes. I like more romance and wit and a little less camp; but it got good laughs from the audience. There is a scene where Benedick hides in a barrel with only his cowboy hat sticking out as he listens in on a conversation. This was cartoonish slapstick; but in a way it made the play accessible and fun, and all of the kids sitting next to me thought it was hilarious. Several of Shakespeare’s songs are sung to the tunes of “El Paso” and “Amazing Grace.” These western clichés were in abundance, and it made me wonder how the play would fair if the designers had conjured a more specific and authentic western world, rather than one directly out of pop culture. But like Shakespeare’s time, the production plays on familiar cultural references and stereotypes that the audience can pick up on and enjoy.
Liza de Weer as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo courtesy of Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.
The cast is excellent. De Weer and Goodman as Beatrice and Benedick are great sparring partners. Their witty banter is sharp and fast; but they manage to keep the audience up on the jokes, and so the humor is never lost. The young lover Claudio is sweet and young, and I believed his devastation when he hears of Hero’s betrayal. All of the performances are strong, and even the minor characters are all in support of the story. What I loved most were the subtleties and vulnerabilities that the actors convey in the midst of the comedy. At one point Benedick says of Beatrice after complaining about her, “She speaks poniards, and every word stabs”; I got a sense of his love for her in that line. Little hints of melancholy like these made me attach to and root for these characters throughout the play.
I recommend this production to anyone who wants to get out on a warm summer night and see some Shakespeare. The play was great fun with highly professional, polished performances, all in the serene beauty of Central Park. And the weather was (at least when I was there) perfect.
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner