The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park has long been one of New York’s most prized cultural jewels – and this summer, Kenny Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing is here to remind you why. Shakespeare’s comedy (ahem – more on this later) is a cacophony of beautiful and talented people and some excellent music and choreography, yes. But more than the sum of all its parts, it is perhaps one of the best productions of this classic play that you could hope to see.
The story follows Beatrice, a famously quick-witted woman, and Benedick, the soldier with whom she’s entered into a playful banter. They’re clearly besotted with each other, but both are too proud and stubborn to admit it – even to themselves. So, gathered together with a victorious battle behind them and a wedding before them, their friends scheme to get the two to admit their love to each other.
Danielle Brooks (best known from the cast of Orange is the New Black) as Beatrice and Grantham Coleman as Benedick are an electric pairing, together or apart. Sparks practically fly from them when they speak to each other. And in their solo performances, they’re each capable of bringing the house down. Coleman’s Benedick, with a swagger worthy of Michael B. Jordan, never takes himself too seriously, and the audience couldn’t get enough of his never-ending playfulness (think: whispering “Kobe!” to himself as he parkours his way over some bushes). Brooks is a Beatrice who takes herself very seriously, both as a lover and in her unofficial role as the leader and protector of the women of the household. Armed with the impregnable wit of Beatrice and a confidence equal to the swagger of her counterpart, she inspires tears of laughter as she picks her way across the audience to eavesdrop on her cousin, and goosebumps when she sings into the night.
But despite the infamous main characters and their brilliant embodiments by Brooks and Coleman, it becomes clear very quickly that romance and wit is not the main focus of the night. Director Kenny Leon embraces the disturbing lows and the raucous highs of this, one of Shakespeare’s alternatively funniest and most unsettling comedies. The shiny happy marriage between Hero, Beatrice’s cousin, and Claudio, Benedick’s brother-in-arms, goes horribly wrong with one fatal flaw: that of not listening to women. Strong themes of unconditional female love and the contentiousness of male camaraderie underlie every scene, reinforced by the powerful physical actions and body language of the actors. With Kenny Leon’s direction and an original text that seems to have been kept almost completely intact, the full effect of the trauma inflicted within this so-called comedy is laid bare with chilling emotional poignancy for us to re-examine. It’s all so close to home that you almost want to cry.
Another defining theme of this production of Much Ado About Nothing is ushered in by the giant “Stacey Abrams 2020” banner hanging prominently on Leonato’s house. Black culture in America is woven beautifully and seamlessly into the story: the women braiding hair in the opening scene, or the songs performed throughout; the African wedding dancers, and the broom placed at Claudio and Hero’s feet before their wedding vows. The soldiers returning from war carry protest signs reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter movement – the significance of which is brought back in a haunting, utterly stupefying way at the very end.
Leon’s direction allows the depths of every single character, even those minor Shakespearean one-liners who don’t usually manage to keep off the cutting room floor (who ever knew that there was a character named Ursula?), to be explored. No line isn’t used to its full potential, and no scene drags. In fact, the household of Leonato becomes one of infinitely complicated moving pieces, no longer so easily defined by those two sets of quarreling lovers as memory serves. It’s hard to tell if it is this dynamism or the sheer magnetism of the cast that leaves you wishing, even after a 2.5-hour performance (and 400 years of Shakespeare studies), that you could know more about the characters.
But the most monumental twist, the one that takes it from a great production to an unforgettable performance, takes place in the final few minutes of the show. It’s so jaw-dropping that it may even redefine the entire play for you. It will leave you reeling with the fresh perspective on everything you’d just watched on stage. And it’s worth a trip to Central Park, no matter how long the line, to get to see it for yourself.
- By William Shakespeare
- Directed by Kenny Leon
- Choreography by Camille A. Brown
- Cast includes: Danielle Brooks, Grantham Coleman, Margaret Odette, Jeremie Harris, Chuck Cooper, Billy Eugene Jones
- Delacorte Theater, Central Park
- Until 23 June 2019