By Harry Forbes
The Public Theater always seems to do well with Shakespeare’s ever-popular 1598 comedy, and this latest -- an all-black production directed by the estimable Kenny Leon (his first show for the Public, and his first Shakespearean production in New York) -- is no exception.
Updated and reset from the Sicilian port of Messina to 2020 Atlanta, the production is nonetheless reassuringly traditional in most respects, though Leon has, of course, given it the overlay of the African-American experience, and the music is perforce a more up-to-date playlist than the Bard’s original.Thus we have such tunes as Marvin Gaye’s “What Going On,” “Precious Lord,” and “America the Beautiful,” sharing the stage with new tunes by Jason Michael Webb, and replacing the usual “Sigh No More” and others.
The play opens with the men coming back from an unspecified war but, as a program note explains, “this Delacorte production never depicts those the community is fighting against, emphasizing instead the values that the community is trying to defend.” Thus, the soldiers -- outfitted in burgundy uniforms (by designer Emilio Sosa) -- carry signs declaring such sentiments as “I Am a Person” and “Restore Democracy Now.”
In a program background interview, Leon explains he sees the community of the play “fighting for the values that Americans hold dear: the idea of democracy for everybody and respect for everybody, and all those values that people right now seem to be pushing against.”
The sparring Beatrice and Benedict are most delightfully taken by Danielle Brooks from “Orange is the New Black” and the revival of “The Color Purple,” and Grantham Coleman. Brooks’ sassy delivery works quite well with her character’s witty banter. Her speech after her famous injunction to “Kill, Claudio” -- “Oh, that I were a man for his sake” -- is passionately delivered, and earns an appreciative response from the audience. They and the other cast members deliver the text intelligently, albeit in the time-honored strictly American Public Theater style.
Though a far cry to such famous exemplars of the roles as Ellen Terry and Henry Irving in the19th century, and Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud in the last, The Public’s approach is valid, and the sparring couple’s “merry war” of words still satisfies. When I got home from the show, I listened to a bit of a 1963 recording of the play with Rachel Roberts, Rex Harrison, and a first-class English cast in the traditional style, and it sounded downright quaint by comparison.
Margaret Odette excels as the wronged Hero, with Jeremie Harris her too easily duped lover Claudio. (There’s a nice touch at the end when she slaps him before forgiving him for her earlier public shaming at their wedding when he was tricked into thinking her unfaithful.) Billy Eugene Jones plays Benedict and Claudio’s unlucky-in-love commander Don Pedro, with Hubert Point-Du-Jour as his villainous brother Don John. Versatile Chuck Cooper is expert as Hero’s father, as is Erik Laray Harvey as her doddering uncle Antonio. Olivia Washington and Tiffany Denise Hobbs are also strong as Margaret and Ursula, Hero’s ladies-in-waiting. And Tyrone Mitchell Henderson scores as the beleaguered Friar who steadfastly believes in Hero’s innocence.
The inept constable Dogberry -- as hopeless in wordplay as Beatrice and Benedick are adept -- is taken by a woman, Lateefah Holder, but the part is scarcely less tedious than usual. Jaime Lincoln Smith and Khiry Walker are the “false knaves” Borachio and Conrade apprehended by the foolish Dogberry and his/her Watch.
The scene where Beatrice and Benedick are tricked by their respective friends into hearing how they are loved by the other is delightfully done, with Brooks even eavesdropping from the audience as she makes her way down a row.
Beowulf Boritt’s attractive mansion set with its large “Stacey Abrams 2020” banners -- telegraphs the updated setting, and the whole is attractively lit by Peter Kaczorowski. Sosa’s costumes are modern but are as pleasing to the eye as period costumes.
Camille A. Brown (also “Choir Boy”) has contributed the bracing choreography including disco dancing in a party scene and electric slide moves for the wedding sequence.
The most memorable “Much Ado” of my theater-going experience remains the 1982 Royal Shakespeare Company production with Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack, though The Public’s 1972 updating with Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes, which transferred to Broadway and was later televised on network TV, was pretty special, too.
Leon’s production is a physically lovely, dramatically perceptive one, and the proof of its success was the uninhibited audience response during certain scenes, probably not unlike the boisterous audience response at the 16th century Globe.
(The Delacorte Theater in Central Park is accessible by entering at 81st Street and Central Park West or at 79th Street and Fifth Avenue; ticket distribution info at PublicTheater.org; through June 23)
Photo by Joan Marcus: Danielle Brooks and Grantham Coleman.