The soldiers, under the command of Don Pedro, return, triumphant, from war, for rest and recreation at the country estate of Leonato. During their idyll of lazy days and masqued balls, young Claudio falls in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero, while his niece Beatrice resumes a mutually disdainful relationship with Lord Benedick, mentor to Claudio and sidekick of Don Pedro. Noting that Beatrice and Benedick advertise their antipathy all too passionately, their respective posses conspire to trick them into falling in love. Meanwhile, Don Pedro’s bastard half-brother Don John and his cronies arrange to dupe Claudio into believing Hero is a loose woman just in time for both him and Leonato to renounce her on her wedding day.
There’s your plot of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy so beloved of actors and summer Shakespeare festivals that this marks its sixth outing in Central Park since 1972. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado has survived many a director’s reinterpretation with changes in setting, era, even sex, so long as the comedy, low as well as high, remains essentially intact. It’s no different here. And so we know, as soon as we settle into our seats at the Delacorte Theater, we are not in Shakespeare’s port city of Messina, or anywhere in Sicily or Italy for that matter, and not in the 16th century, either.
Leonato’s estate (the set is by Beowulf Boritt, the burnished lighting by Peter Kaczorowski) resembles a Federalist mansion in Georgetown, its red brick façade bedecked with banners proclaiming “Stacey Abrams 2020.” If Don Pedro and his regiment are returning from battle, it’s unclear where, exactly, the war is. Perhaps the front is in the Capitol, for the troops arrive by Lincoln Continental, which, rolling on stage, draws cheers from the audience. The denizens are as likely to break out into a round of “America the Beautiful” as they are into the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey’s gospel standard “Precious Lord,” even if the dramatic language remains, for the most part, devoutly Shakespeare’s.
Some will doubtless find this fiddling silly or pandering, much as was charged two summers ago with Oskar Eustis’s Trumpian take on Julius Caesar. But director Kenny Leon (American Son, the criminally underrated Tupac show, Holler If Ya Hear Me) and choreographer Camille A. Brown (Choir Boy) have pleasure, not revolution, in mind with this soulful adventure, much as Kenneth Branagh did with his sun-drenched film version of the play back in 1993. The show luxuriates in swagger and sway as Beatrice (Orange is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks) and Benedick (Grantham Coleman, Choir Boy) eagerly tear each other apart until no option is left to them but to come together. Most of all, it reminded me, happily, of go-for-broke Public Theater productions back in the day, when Joe Papp ruled with an unheavy hand and thumbing your nose at pedantry was the law of the land.
Viciousness does not come naturally to Brooks, but snark may. She dispenses an insult (“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me”) with a narrow-eyed glint suggesting she’s in on the joke and slander is simply one of many arrows in her quiver. As for Coleman, he’s more the impish supplicant than haughty princeling ripe for takedown, and there is nearly more urgency in his coaching of Claudio (the softly impressive Jeremie Harris) than in his sparring with Beatrice. Margaret Odette, sylphlike in yellow and practically given angel wings by costumer Emilio Sosa, impresses as Hero, especially when the poor girl gets the brutal pile-on from father and fiancé.
Commanding it all is the Leonato of Chuck Cooper (Choir Boy), exuding warmth and a seen-it-all noblesse, even when dealing most compassionately with his doddering brother Antonio (Erik Laray Harvey).
Less impressive are Billy Eugene Jones and Hubert Point-Du Jour as the brothers Pedro and John. And Lateefah Holder, as the malaprop-prone constable Dogberry, lacks the necessary conviction of the poor slob’s linguistic butchery. Nevertheless, with inspired original music by Jason Michael and unusually well-balanced sound by Jessica Paz, Much Ado has plenty of something for a warm summer night in the park.