Central Park’s open-air Delacorte Theater predisposes audiences to a good time: Most June nights, sunset gives way to moonlight before intermission, while poor weather (the resident Public Theater rarely cancels a show) prompts an umbrella-close coziness and shared devotion to live performance that can leave you feeling smug, if slightly soggy. Moreover, tickets are free.
But place in that glorious setting a near-perfect production of William Shakespeare’s finest rom-com and the experience levels up to sublime. That is what Tony-winning director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun) gives us in his modern Much Ado About Nothing at the Delacorte through June 23.
Leon’s fleet and thoughtful telling takes place an affluent African-American community in Georgia in the spring of 2020: Peaches hang from the trees and Stacey Abrams campaign banners wave from Leonato’s brick manor house where the nobleman (played warmly by Broadway veteran Chuck Cooper) lives with his marriage-minded daughter Hero and his marriage-intolerant niece Beatrice.
The play is framed by men coming from and leaving for war. The script doesn’t specify a historic battle, so Leon has armed his soldiers with only protest placards — “RESTORE DEMOCRACY NOW” among them — and before the action begins Danielle Brooks sings an a cappella version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” But while the production references our dispiriting current political climate, the mood is generally joyous, the laughs plentiful, and the focus rightly on Shakespeare’s battle of the sexes, anchored by the haters-turned-lovers, Beatrice and Benedick.
The sparring between Beatrice (Brooks, best known as Taystee on Orange is the New Black) and Benedick (Grantham Coleman, of the Public’s As You Like It) is electric from the start, the insults of their “merry war of wits” played like The Dozens. They are well matched — both actors are strong physical comedians and adept with the verbal barbs. But, while Coleman’s Benedick is appealing even when he is offending, the advantage here is Beatrice’s. Brooks is simply a force of nature.
The Georgia-born actress held a similar fierce Southern woman role, Sofia, in the 2015 Broadway revival of The Color Purple. She is in her comfort zone telling men — really, telling everyone — what’s what, with humor and sass. She’s unironically tender when she realizes she is the object of her enemy’s love, but also lets authentic rage come forth in the “Oh, that I were a man” speech. As independent as our Beatrice is in her own mind, she still needs a male ally in the world — and that, combined with an injustice done to her cousin, frustrates her to the point of fury. (Times have changed but, politically speaking, it remains true today, gentlemen: We cannot act alone.)
For the most part the 400-year-old text and updated milieu mesh nicely. When Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Margaret Odette, deftly handling the ingenue burden) and her attendant Ursula (Tiffany Denise Hobbs, another asset to this strong ensemble) are talking about Beatrice — “She is so self-endeared” says the former with a tart eye roll — their Elizabethan gossip session is as fresh as a clip from Real Housewives of Atlanta. At other moments, the plot bangs up against the setting: After Hero is accused of infidelity by her fiancé, Claudio (Jeremie Harris, charming even when credulous), her father takes the aggrieved man’s side, and goes further: “Death is the fairest cover for her shame,” he says. Really? Wouldn’t Leonato, a guy who literally flies the flag for the progressive, feminist candidate Stacey Abrams, believe women?
But such moments are fleeting and this Ado offers too much joy to worry about vexing questions. For the most part, it makes a virtue of its contemporary touches, from the nearly on-stage SUV that brings the soldiers home (the realistic scenic design is by Beowulf Boritt), to the rich party sequence costumes (by Emilio Sosa), to status signifiers such as a La Perla lingerie bag. The production’s original songs by Jason Michael Webb (the Choir Boy musical director and arranger, who just received a special Tony Award this past Sunday) fit neatly into the narrative; the masquerade ball has an infectious dance sequence that would be at home in a music video, while the wedding scene opens with performance of a West African celebration dance and drumming (terrific choreography throughout by Camille A. Brown, also recently of Choir Boy). Leon’s first Shakespeare in the Park outing is, according to the program notes, the fifth Much Ado About Nothing on this stage. It surely won’t be the last there, but it will be a tough act to follow. A-