WHAT "Much Ado About Nothing"
WHERE Delacorte Theater in Central Park, through June 23
INFO For information on getting free tickets, go to publictheater.org.
BOTTOM LINE A fascinating, politically charged vision of one of Shakespeare's greatest comedies.
The Stacey Abrams 2020 banners hanging from the two-story brick mansion make one thing clear. This "Much Ado About Nothing" is not taking place in 16th century Italy.
In director Kenny Leon’s intriguing vision of what many consider Shakespeare’s finest comedy, the acting fast forwards more than 400 years, and instead of Aragon in Italy, we are in Aragon, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta where Leon started his career.
With its near future setting and an all-black cast, Leon gives the production, the opener at this year's annual Shakespeare in the Park series from the Public Theater, political undertones not usually so blatant in a work better known for its explorations of betrayal and miscommunication.
As the play opens, an army is returning from battle, but instead of guns, these soldiers carry signs with messages like ”Hate Is Not a Family Value." This war, it seems, is of the moment, but the community values worth fighting for take a more personal turn in the love stories at the heart of the play, and Leon has gathered an impressive cast to give them life.
Danielle Brooks and Grantham Coleman are on fire as those romantic sparring partners Beatrice and Benedick. He’s wonderful as the man seemingly allergic to matrimony, but she steals every scene with an irreverent approach to the character, a woman worn down by her suitors to the point where she’s all but given up. The words are the Bard's, but Brooks' every move (the high-fives, the hair tossing, the twerking) are right out of a Cardi B video.
Margaret Odette and Jeremie Harris as the almost doomed lovers Hero and Claudio don’t get the crowd going with quite the same energy, but they are endearing. As Hero’s father, Leonato, Chuck Cooper is a commanding presence even when the man he's playing is something of a jerk.
In keeping with its updated setting, the production gets a lift from frequent musical interludes (though occasionally too long in a play that could use tightening) and contemporary choreography by Camille A. Brown. Beowulf Boritt's lush backyard set is a lovely rendition of gracious Southern hospitality, and Emilio Sosa has great fun with the costumes — you don't often see ripped jeans and high-end sneakers in Shakespeare.
The love-wins ending, a funky, high-spirited electric-slide style wedding dance, is interrupted by sirens calling the army back to action. The soldiers abandon their partners, pick up their signs and head back to battle. Message received. This war, we must surmise, is far from over.