photos by Joan Marcus
Much Ado About Nothing at the Delacorte Theater
By Barry Bassis
Do you watch those classic 1930’s screwball comedies, like The
Awful Truth or Twentieth Century? The plot lines often
involve a man and woman who had unsuccessful prior relationships with each
other and for most of the course of the action they trade insults, until
finally they acknowledge they’re still in love.
The likely model for these comedies is the stormy relationship of
Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
The play is now being revived at Shakespeare in the Park in a
delightful production directed by Kenny Leon.
The time is the present and the setting has been moved to Georgia. Leonato, the owner of the mansion where the action takes place (a lovely set by
Beowulf Boritt), may belong to the one percent, but he is a Democrat. The
outside wall contains a banner for Stacey Abrams in 2020 and a poster of Barack
Obama can be seen inside the front door.
The troops are coming home from war but it’s unclear what kind of
fighting took place since they bear signs stating that “Hate is Not a Family
Value,” “Now More than Ever We Must Love” and other indications that they were
at a love-in rather than an armed conflict.
Danielle Brooks, Grantham Coleman
Beatrice and Benedick initially despise one another but their
friends trick each into believing that the other is in love with them.
Margaret Odette, Jeremie Harris, Billie Eugene Jones, Chuck Cooper
The relationship of Hero (Margaret Odette) and Claudio (Jeremie
Harris) is the opposite. They immediately declare their love and decision to
marry but others conspire to drive them apart. Claudio is led to believe that
Hero is not a virgin and he springs the charge on her in the most brutal way,
at the wedding ceremony. He physically attacks her and, to make matters worse,
Hero’s father joins in the verbal abuse.
Finally, the conspiracy is revealed and the marriage proceeds. To
make the turnaround more comprehensible to a modern audience, Leon has Hero
slug Claudio before she kisses him.
The play has added resonance in the era of #MeToo. Women were held
to maintain a standard of purity. But what of the men? No one seems to care
about their dalliances while they were off fighting a foreign war.
The cast is strong, especially Danielle Brooks as Beatrice.
The actress (best known for Orange is the New Black)
is a wonder. She wins laughs not only in the witty lines but even at moments
where her character doesn’t say anything. Her dramatic flair comes to the fore
when she expresses outrage at the treatment of Hero. Brooks is even a terrific
singer, as she demonstrates with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” (The music by
Jason Michael Webb makes less of an impression than the older songs.)
Lithe Grantham Coleman is a perfect foil as Benedick. He is
especially funny hopping around the set and hiding while the others speak about
Beatrice’s feelings toward him. He also has a hilarious hard time pronouncing
the word “marriage.”
Full-bodied Beatrice and slim Benedick even suggest classic comedy
teams, such as Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello.
Versatile Chuck Cooper as Leonato reveals that he is an impressive
Shakespearean actor. He would be a natural for Falstaff.
The only performer who seems miscast, and doubly so, is Erik LaRay
Harvey, playing Verges (one of the constables) and Leonato’s elderly brother
Antonio. His acting is too broad in the first and unconvincing in the second.
Much Ado About Nothing is
a strong directorial debut for Kenny Leon at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare
in the Park.
Much Ado About Nothing is
running until June 23 at the Delacorte Theater.
note: This production to be broadcast on Great Performances (date to be