The Shakespeare Festival edges out a victory against the Bard's indifference.

Ado 3, Nothing 2 

The Shakespeare Festival edges out a victory against the Bard's indifference.

These last awful weeks, the one pleasure of my jogs has been watching the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival stage go up in Southmoreland Park, always a relief as I emerge heatstroked and headachey from the Art Institute lawn and its eyesores. The set fits in. Its cobbled villa sits snugly among the trees and dribbly creek, and the faux stonework complements the wall abutting Oak and Warwick. With its footbridge and fountain, its sense of viny romance, this could become -- if it weren't for those security guards -- midtown's premiere make-out spot. Forget that hideous arena or the storage-shed addition to the Nelson. Someone in this town can build something beautiful.

It's better crafted than the play, a trifle that's become, in the decade since Kenneth Branagh's anointing, a warhorse. Just six summers back, Much Ado About Nothing headlined this very festival, which begs the question: With so many greats to choose from -- plays whose language is the headwater of our modern English -- why stage, again, this repetitious comedy written with hardly a lick of actual poetry?

Yes, the world's greatest dramatist botches much of this one. Key scenes are unwritten, subplots abandoned, and the villain, Don John (Rusty Sneary, sounding a bit like a sleepy cartoon bear), vanishes for good well before his scheme, pretty much an elaborate cockblock, is foiled. Worse is how the scenes of sparring courtship between Beatrice and Benedick (Mary McCrary and David Fritts), the comic duets that lift this play skyward, are inevitably followed by nonsense about faked deaths and idiot watchmen.

Still, under director Sidonie Garrett, the five acts mostly skip by. She lingers on what works, hustles through what doesn't, and doesn't shy from the darker edges.

The show covers Don John's attempt to disrupt the nuptials of heroic twerp Claudio (Nathan Darrow) and his betrothed, Hero (Cinnamon Schultz, all dimples and curls.) Meanwhile, the rest of Messina conspires to hook up the squabbling Benedick and Beatrice. It's a lark, sometimes trying and sometimes riotous, until Claudio is tricked into thinking that his Hero has been -- in a line Sneary rises to admirably -- "every man's Hero." Soon, in a scene of true cruelty, Claudio shames Hero as unchaste before God, family and however many folks packed a cooler and a blanket that particular evening. More stuff happens, some of it tiresome, and everyone gets married anyway, sometimes by sneaky surprise no goofier than what Piggy does to Kermit in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Fritts and McCrary sparkle, but our first exposure to the bumbling Night Watch comes at the worst possible time -- to not fall flat, it would have had to be brilliantly funny. It isn't. (Their scenes improve but are almost undone by an inscrutable bit of slapstick involving broom handles and the crotches of Don John's men.)

Later, Claudio, Leonato (Charles Leader) and Don Pedro (Bruce Roach, who wrings pleasure from every line) punk the eavesdropping Benedick by inventing tales of Beatrice's love for him, and we're treated to one of theater's great comic set pieces. But when we then get the same joke played out by the women for the benefit of Beatrice, playwright and audience are spent, and poor Schulz and Kelly Main are left to flute shrilly in the void.

Some dull scenes are saved. Leader scores as the comicly addled Leonato and is just as strong wishing his slandered daughter dead. And Mateusz Lewczenko finds dignity in a thankless role, as he did in UMKC's The Circus Show, a production that proved art doesn't have to make sense but is probably better when it does.

As for making sense of the Bard, before the actors can engage, enlighten or give us any of the graces we count upon from theater, they must communicate. They must enunciate, pantomime, let us know through faces and hands that horns means cuckold and cuckold means cheated on.

For the most part, the cast excels at this, particularly Fritts, whose Benedick rants with a clarity that makes him all the funnier, and McCrary, who is burdened with the play's most backbreaking whimsies. When she finishes even her most convoluted speech, she smiles hugely, and everyone onstage laughs. We smile, too, alerted that a joke has been told, trusting that it was good one.

The show, too, is a good joke, pretty well told -- one worth hearing. But there are other ones, better ones, we need to hear, too.

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