Reading articles about Director Kenny Leon’s approach to this venerable comedy of presumption, miscommunication, and vengeance, I was concerned that a contemporary political take would flatten innate buoyancy. I needn’t have been. This witty production largely lets the audience bring its own awareness rather than hitting us over the head. Leon has his methods, however.
There are visuals: banners saying Stacey Abrams for President 2020 adorn Scenic Designer Beowulf Borwitt’s splendid, upper class, suburban Atlanta house, the open door reveals an Obama poster. (Directorial opportunities abound given a balcony, French doors, a patio, and lawn.) Soldiers return from an unnamed war carrying placards: Restore Democracy Now, I Am a Person, Now More Than Ever Love and, tellingly, return to that war at the end of the play rather than reveling in the usual happy ending.
Music, from Beatrice’s opening, a capella “What’s Goin’ On?” in tandem with “America the Beautiful,” to spirituals, disco, a bit of Motown and some weak songs by Jason Michael Webb, is employed to reset orientation. Choreography by Tony winning Camille A. Brown provides actors with spirited movement while ouch-magnifying dancers’ gyrations. An African number feels out of place.
Occasionally words/phrases aiming for hot-button response are emphasized, but not so much that it ever grows annoying/preachy. The all black cast predominantly skirts street tone contributing its own style, respecting source material while making it deceptively casual. Though an otherwise fine Danielle Brooks (Beatrice) had me worried at the start, she settles in exchanging at-ti-tude for spunk.
You know the story: Sworn bachelors, Beatrice (Danielle Brooks) and Benedick (Grantham Coleman) have a barbed relationship (“merry war”) which must resolve in the end with admission of love. Friends and family arrange for each to overhear that the other is, in fact, enamored, drawing them together. Benedick’s buddy Claudio (Jeremie Harris) is besotted with and duly promised Hero (Margaret Odette), daughter of host Leonato (Chuck Cooper).
Claudio and regiment leader Don Pedro (Billy Eugene Jones) are set up by Don Pedro’s jealous brother Don John (Hubert Point-Du Jour) to witness a false scene in which virginal Hero seems unfaithful the night before her wedding. Claudio denounces her at the altar; Leonato follows suit. Hero faints. Havoc ensues. At the instigation of a priest (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), the party declares the incipient bride dead while investigating.
Beatrice provokes Benedick to challenge Claudio in the name of retribution and new love. The men never reach combat as Dogberry (Lateefah Holder), and the otherwise inept band on neighborhood watch, discover the truth. Two marriages occur.
All four star-crossed lovers are skilled actors for whom Shakespeare falls trippingly on the tongue in exemplary conversational fashion. In fact, the cast as a whole manages the Bard with a lack of self-consciousness. Only Erik Laray Harvey as Leonato’s brother Antonio rings false and hammy. The plot is clear, its production flows.
Danielle Brooks’ (Orange is The New Black) Beatrice is credibly feisty and impassioned; Grantham Coleman’s Benedick cocky, gracefully masculine, believably swayed.
As Hero, Margaret Odette exudes innocence and pliancy, while Jeremie Harris’ Claudio personifies the square jawed, square thinking swain.
The dependable Chuck Cooper (Leonato) brings warmth and gravitas to every appearance.
Director Kenny Leon brings out the contrast between Beatrice’s independent, I-Am- Woman (and can contentedly exist without you) persona and Hero’s role as compliant chattel, more resonant than ever today. Men don’t appear wuss-like, but arrogant and honor-bound, symptomatic of the times. Consciousness is prodded.
The three level Set is expertly utilized. When hiding, both Beatrice and Benedick resort to vaudevillian ducks, dives and crawling. Mercifully reduced Dogberry segments also have deftly clownish moments. Beatrice and Benedick’s sniping lands well. Plotting rests on wry rather than broad delivery. Hero’s breakdown is adroitly staged and played.
Costumes are a mixed bag of modern, mismatched styling, good looking uniforms, and pointedly flashy formal wear. Two striped caftan-like garments Beatrice wears are distinctly cheap looking and unflattering as is a dress for Hero that appears to be a low end, polyester nightgown. Design by Emilio Sosa. Elaborate Wigs, Hair, and Makeup by Mia Neal are aesthetically in keeping. Peter Kaczorowski’s Lighting Design is integral and effective.
Photos by Joan Marcus
The Public Theatre presents Free Shakespeare in The Park
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kenny Leon
Through June 23, 2019
The Delacorte Theater in Central Park