As Beatrice in the Public Theater’s all-black production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” Danielle Brooks proves herself a Shakespearean actress of a high order – and at the same time redefines what it means to be one.
Best known for portraying Taystee
in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” and for her 2016 Tony-nominated Broadway debut as Sofia in a revival of “The Color Purple,” Brooks is a Juilliard-trained actress. She takes complete command of Shakespeare’s language, especially in the feisty character’s “merry war” and “skirmish of wit” with Benedick (a wry and dashing Grantham Coleman.) But Brooks also creates her own language – a body language, whose every expression and gesture brings us clarity and joy….and takes us to the state of Georgia in the year 2020.
That is where director Kenny Leon has set his production, which is evident before the play even begins. Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt’s inviting two-story brick house on stage is plastered with an enormous campaign poster: “Stacey Abrams 2020.”
This is one of the many liberties, both big and small, that Leon takes with the Bard. Passages are deleted, lines are shortened. The action begins when Brooks as Beatrice comes on stage singing the first verses of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” a socially conscious song from 1971 commenting on the tumult and tragedies of the era. Then Tiffany Denise Hobbs as the gentlewoman (attendant) Ursula sings the beginning of “America The Beautiful.” Then they alternate the two songs, a mash-up with a message.
That messaging continues when men in uniform then arrive behind an actual moving car (always a crowd-pleaser at the Delacorte.) In Shakespeare’s text, the men are returning from an unspecified war, in which Benedick has proven himself in battle. But what war are Georgians fighting in 2020? Perhaps their identical maroon and grey costumes are meant to be outfits worn in a combination parade and protest march or campaign rally, because they carry signs that say things like “Hate Is Not A Family Value.”
Let us not scrutinize the transposition too carefully. What matters is that Brooks and the rest of the cast nail the comedy and do right by the romance in this play by an author who arguably invented the basic formula of every romantic comedy that’s even come out of Hollywood: Put together a man and woman who can’t stand each other, and have them fall in love. But, in “Much Ado About Nothing,” it’s not just natural chemistry that pierces them with Cupid’s Arrows. It’s gossip.
The clever poster for the summer season at the Delacorte (which will later feature “Coriolanus” and “Hercules”) is “Rumors and Rebels.” And “rumors” is a good one-word summary of the plot and theme of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Friends conspire to have Benedick overhear that Beatrice, despite her combativeness, is actually in love with him. Other friends conspire to have Beatrice overhead that Benedick is in love with her. The scenes where first Benedick and then Beatrice hide while snooping on their friends’ chatter, are staged hilariously – with Brooks displacing or sitting atop some lucky/unlucky members of the audience.
But gossip is not just benevolent in “Much Ado.” A deliberate campaign of slander by the villainous Don John (Hubert Point-Du Jour) threatens to derail the love-at-first-sight between Benedick’s comrade in arms Claudio (Jeremie Harris) and Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Margaret Odette.) Fooled into thinking that his lover is a slut, Claudio denounces Hero at their wedding, and puts a stop to their marriage. Beatrice demands that Benedick kill Claudio — and Benedick agrees to challenge his friend to a fight. Fortunately, constable Dogberry saves the day. Portrayed by Lateefah Holder, she is a standout in a cast full of pros that convince us that laughter and love can win out over hate, even in 2020.
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
Much Ado About Nothing
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kenny Leon. Choreography by Camille A. Brown, scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Emilio Sosa, lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, sound design by Jessica Paz, hair, wig, and make-up design by Mia Neal, composer Jason Michael Webb, fight director Thomas Schall, voice and text Kate Wilson
Cast: Jamar Brathwaite (Ensemble), Danielle Brooks (Beatrice), Grantham Coleman (Benedick), Chuck Cooper (Leonato), Javen K. Crosby (Ensemble), Denzel DeAngelo Fields (Ensemble), Jeremie Harris (Claudio), Tayler Harris (Ensemble), Erik Laray Harvey (Antonio/Verges), Kai Heath (Messenger), 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), William Roberson (Ensemble), JaimeLincoln Smith (Borachio), Jazmine Stewart(Ensemble), Khiry Walker (Conrade/Ensemble), Olivia Washington (Margaret), and Latra A. Wilson (Dancer)
Running time: Two and a half hours, including an intermission
Much Ado About Nothing runs on stage at the Delacorte in Central Park through June 23, 2019