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Much Ado About Nothing

                                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 announced).