By Paige Allen
June 12, 2019
From the moment Danielle Brooks stepped out onto the balcony as Beatrice and reached out her hand, she had the whole audience in the palm of it.
Granted, I am sure the Public Theater’s “Much Ado About Nothing” does not typically begin with Brooks sticking her hand out to feel the rain. The Shakespeare in the Park production plays in all kinds of weather in the open-air Delacorte Theater; the night I attended happened to be a particularly dreary one.
But as Brooks felt the rain on her palm and tilted her head back to catch the raindrops on her tongue, she removed any illusion of distance between the audience and the actors — not in the metaphorical, theoretical way in which thespians tend to describe the connection between the audience and the performers but in an honest, unpretentious, matter-of-fact way which seemed to say, “We’re both getting rained on. Let’s have some fun while it happens.”
A similarly rain-caused — if less premeditated — moment occurred when Benedick, played by the charming Grantham Coleman, slipped on the slick stage and landed flat on his back. The audience audibly gasped. Claudio (Jeremie Harris) looked down at his friend and uttered one syllable: “Bruh.” The theater erupted into laughter and applause as Harris helped Coleman to his feet.
Normally, a reviewer would not focus on the moments I’ve mentioned, the idiosyncrasies of a particular performance, but these spontaneous moments served to concentrate and highlight the communal, equalizing attitude which pervaded “Much Ado.”
The atmosphere in the Delacorte Theater on June 10 was infused with the spirit of what I imagine it would have been like to view this play in 1599 — the audience open to the London weather, reacting audibly to the action onstage with food and drink in hand.
Yet, director Kenny Leon’s artistic vision ensures this show will not be Shakespeare’s “Much Ado” as explicitly intended in sixteenth-century Britain, and the production is most certainly the better for it.
Leon situates his production, according to the program note by the Public Theater’s Resident Shakespeare Scholar James Shapiro, “in the near future, 2020, on the eve of the election, in the American South.” Beowulf Boritt’s set suggests a suburban Georgia home belonging to a well-off family of Stacey Abrams supporters. In this future, Abrams is running for president.
Leon’s take on “Much Ado” gives the phrase “all-black production” much deeper meaning than “a production with a cast of black actors.” Blackness is more than present onstage; the show is steeped in black culture celebrated through songs, dances, and ceremonial practices. The actors draw from a distinctly black cultural language of clapbacks, dance moves, and vocal inflections. When so often actors of color are implicitly or explicitly expected to “act white,” especially when playing classical characters, it is refreshing to see this cast simply playing modern black folks like themselves without restraint or apology. (Why that is not the logical norm is maddening and could fill another article — if not a book — itself.)
“Much Ado” is, at its heart, a romantic comedy, and Leon’s cast marvellously captures the playfulness and humor in the play. Coleman and Brooks keep the audience in almost continuous laughter with their antics as they “hide” — in hilariously ineffective ways — while they eavesdrop on their friends strategically gossiping about how each is secretly in love with the other.
The subplot with the inept constable Dogberry (Lateefah Holder), his equally incompetent men (Jamar Brathwaite, Javen K. Cosby, Denzel Deangelo Fields, and Erik Laray Harvey), and the sexton (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) — scenes that in any production, for me, are never as funny as they should be and tend to feel like the same joke repeated over and over again — is made more enjoyable by Holder’s rapid speech and Henderson’s physical comedy.
The largely benevolent patriarchs Leonato (played by Chuck Cooper) and Antonio (also played by Harvey) draw out their fair share of laughs as well, Leonato as the (usually) warm father figure and Antonio as the older uncle who’s most certainly still kicking.
Plus, the talented dancers (William Roberson, Lawanda Hopkins, and Latra A. Wilson) bring soul to the piece with their movement, inviting us to groove along in our seats.
However, Leon’s “Much Ado” is not all fun and games. The moments when the largely comic play takes a tragic or even polemic turn cause the energy pumping through the theater to run cold. When Claudio turns on Hero (Margaret Odette) and throws her to the ground, the atomposhere in the Delacorte shifts. We have heard the plan and we know Claudio’s intentions, but it doesn’t seem real until it is physicalized in front of us.
We who had been so captivated by Brooks’s playfulness earlier in the play are just as taken by her performance when Beatrice is burning with anger, proclaiming Hero’s innocence and Claudio’s villainy. Her cry — “Oh God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace” — is met with snaps and “mhmms” from the audience.
As Beatrice laments how Hero’s word is not believed against a man’s and frustratedly declares, “he is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it,” Shakespeare’s lines seem to ring with new meaning in our current time when the words of men and women are so often pitted against each other and the #MeToo movement has given rise to slogans like #believewomen.
Although Hero and Claudio do end up together in the end (it is a comedy, after all), the reunion is not a seamless one between blissful lovers as is often staged. Odette gives her Hero substance, making up with Claudio only after she has given him some choice cold words and a smack on the head for the physical and emotional pain he caused her.
And then there is the war at the edges of the play, the fight from which Don Pedro (played by a gentlemanly Billy Eugene Jones) and his soldiers return home in the first act. Shakespeare is never clear whom or what these men are fighting, and Leon does not try to identify the enemy either. The soldiers are in uniforms which mix modern and historic elements (an interesting choice by the costumer Emilio Sosa, as the rest of the characters wear specifically modern dress), but we do not see the men carry guns. Instead, we see them march with picket signs bearing phrases like “Now More Than Ever We Must Love.” We hear Beatrice’s soulful rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” We experience Leon’s chilling ending, and we understand that whatever these soldiers are up against will not go away easily.
The play finishes with Beatrice centerstage, her arms outstretched wide in a position oddly evocative of her first moment in the play on our particularly rainy night. Is the gesture a sign of pleading, embrace, helplessness, or hope? All could be read into the ending.
In my view, this final moment — all eyes focused on the central Beatrice with the Stacey Abrams banners hanging behind her — is both a promise and a challenge. The promise: that those onstage will keep fighting until things change. The challenge: for us to join them and do the same.
BCS-friendliness rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Shakespeare in the Park is free, so you really can’t get much better than that. I will say, though, it is not the easiest to get tickets. You do have to go wait in line at one of the Public’s physical sites to get tickets when they are released at noon on show days; that’s not always feasible during the week if you have jobs or classes, and weekends tend to be mobbed, so you should plan to get there early. There is a digital lottery through TodayTix, but it is by no means a sure thing.
Standby tickets are also available at the door closer to showtime. I am not sure at what time they start to give those away, and I’m sure some days you’d be more likely to get tickets than others.
The day I saw “Much Ado” was a rainy Monday, so I could have shown up at noon and there would have been tickets still available (instead, I sat in the rain for two hours, but it was a good bonding experience with the other folks in line). It looked like there were a ton of standby tickets available as well since we were allowed to move forward in the theater just before the play began. There really are no bad seats in the Delacourte, but it was especially nice to be as close as I was.