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A CurtainUp Review
much Ado About Nothing
Leon transplants Shakespeare's 16th century play from Messina, Italy, to an African-America suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. It is the near future, 2020, on the eve of the national election. A large banner is draped across a mansion that reads "Stacey Abrams 2020." Indeed, In this production's world Abrams who was the Democratic party's nominee for the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election will be running for president and become a symbolic voice for female empowerment.
Leon retains Shakespeare's language but, with the assistance of composer Jason Michael Webb and choreographer Camille A. Brown, he adds a rich mix of songs and dances that gives this romantic comedy a fresh twinkle and contemporary sound.
The story, in case you need a refresher: The community of Messina is taking a holiday from an ongoing war grom which Don Pedro along with his military entourage is returning. Though peace should prevail, at least for a while, rivalries smolder, enemies plot against one another; and the green-eyed monster stirs in the shadows of some hearts. What's more, tumultuous courtships are beginning for four young lovers— Beatrice (her name means "one who blesses") and Benedict (his name means "one who is blessed"); and Hero and Claudio.
Director Leon's inventive staging opens with Brooks as Beatrice, crooning Marvin Gaye's 1971 "What's Going On?" from the balcony of Leonato's mansion. Her rendering of the anthem gradually segues into an ensemble number that intertwines lines from "America the Beautiful" with the titular refrain of "What's Going On?" in a call-and-response pattern. Yes, this is Shakespeare done in an African-American key and with the theme of community in the fore.
Leon thinks up other interesting stage business— as when an S.U.V. drives on stage early in Act 1,or when Brooks's Beatrice makes a foray through the theater's aisles and mingles with theatergoers in the front rows.
So, be prepared to be pulled into the action as my companion was buttonholed to go along with her double request to give up her aisle seat and then sit in her lap. If this seems a bit audacious, consider that her character is nicknamed by Benedict as "Lady Tongue" and she hopes to escape detection as she eavesdrops on the juicy gossip about Benedict and herself. Therefore, what better way to keep out of sight than to recruit a willing theatergoer to act as a human screen?
The cast includes several standout performances. Danielle Brooks (Orange is the New Black, The Color Purple) is in her element as "Lady Disdain." She certainly has the most Rubenesque figure of any Beatrice I have ever seen. And she uses it to advantage and sashays around the stage like nobody's business.
Grantham Coleman as the love-heretic Benedict manages to go toe-to-toe with the feisty Beatrice (though henever outdoes her wit). Chuck Cooper, as Hero's father and Beatrice's uncle, exudes good will. Only when his daughter Hero is accused of being a tramp does he lose his poise to spew out hysterical words that anticipate Lear's invectives against his daughters.
Also out standing are Margaret Odette and Jeremie Harris who inhabit the tongue-tied Hero and Claudio respectively, with the right reserve and decorum. Laefah Holder as the master constable Dogberry is the first female I have seen play the comic role. She cuts the mustard and spews out his malapropisms with brio.
The creative team supports the cast and overall production. Beowulf Boritt's handsome set, astutely lit by Peter Kaczorowski, is pure Georgian elegance. We see a large stone-and-brick mansion, replete with balconies, ivy-covered trellis, and patio with chaise lounges. Emilio Sosa's costumes--an array of crisp uniforms, couture gowns, and casual attire—are stitched with the right threads. Camille A. Brown's choreography is exhilarating, whether its to the beat of Motown, hip-hop, or soul.
There's something truly magical about an evening at the Delacorte that has to do as much with what happens off stage as on stage. The theatergoer sitting next to me, in fact, shared that he had been to almost every production at the Delacorte since 1977, and that he had brought along his wife and children to see Leon's Much Ado to celebrate the Delacorte's 57th alfresco season.
Going to Free Shakespeare in the Park is indeed a beloved Gotham tradition. It's like being in the Forest of Arden for a couple of hours and having an opportunity to meditate on the characters and dominant themes of a given play and hopefully leave with new insights about the complex world we live in today.
. In Leon's new take on Much Ado, we revisit a work whose central themes are male bonding and female disempowerment. What could be a better play to see in our #MeToo era?
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much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kenny Leon
Cast:Jamar Brathwaite (Ensemble), Brooks (Beatrice), Coleman (Benedick), Chuck Cooper (Leonato), Javen Crosby (Ensemble), Denzel Fields (Ensemble), Jeremie Harris (Claudio), Tayler Harris (Ensemble), Erik Laray Harvey (Antonio, Verges), Kai Heath (Ensemble), Daniel Croix Henderson (Balthasar), Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Friar Francis, Sexton), Tiffany Denise Hobbs (Ursula), Lateefah Holder (Dogberry), LaWanda Hopkins (Dancer), Billy Eugene Jones (Don Pedro), Margaret Odette (Hero), Hubert Point-Du Jour (Don John), Jaime Lincoln Smith (Borachio), Jazmine Stewart (Ensemble), Khiry Walker (Conrade, Ensemble), Olivia Washington (Margaret), and Latra A. Wilson (Dancer).
Choreography: Camille A. Brown
Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Hair, Wig, and Make-Up Design: Mia Neal
Composer Jason: Michael Webb
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Voice and Text: Kate Wilson
Stage Manager: Benjam E. C. Pfister
Running Time:2 hours and 20 minutes with a 20 minute intermission
The Public Theater/Delacorte Theater
From 5/21/19; opening 6/11/19; closing 6/22/19.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan 6/07/19
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