Much Ado About Nothing is the Public Theater’s opening attraction of free Shakespeare in Central Park, and it is a wittily fresh look, and a bright and generally joyous production directed by Kenny Leon. It plays without a quibble or a crotchet. It has an African American cast of exceptional actors, and it is set not in Shakespeare’s original location, Messina, Italy, but in an American Southern state, probably Georgia, in 2020, on the estate of local politician Leonato’s (Chuck Cooper) mansion – with a red, white and blue American flag on its lawn, blowing in the evening breeze. It is plastered with a couple of signs advertising a local democratic candidate, Stacy Abrams, for governor.
Mr. Leon’s 21st-century look at the play is romantic without being mawkish, sentimental without nonsense, and its first-class cast carries it through some of Shakespeare’s awkward scenes – melodramatic traps and twists and turns of plot – with such skill that even Much Ado’s foolish story of the sweet heroine, called Hero (Margarette Odette), and her doubting suitor Claudio (Jeremie Harris) seems reasonable.
In most productions of Much Ado About Nothing, the parent plot created by the play’s most sinister villain, dour Don John (Hubert Point-du Jour), in which he persuades Claudio that Hero is false, is rushed through helter-skelter because, in truth, it has so little semblance of truth.
In most productions of Much Ado, the wordy, wit-fueled war between Beatrice (Danielle Brooks, who starred for several seasons on Orange Is the New Black) and her handsome, bleach-blond beau Benedick (Grantham Coleman) usually becomes the center of the whole play. Here, both characters hate one another and spurn marriage until they are gulled into it.
Under Leon’s ingenious direction, this fits both plots into place as part of the fabric of the play, and by keeping both halves in focus, makes both halves a whole. Although Leon is most responsible for the production’s tone, the actors carry it off and make it work without it seeming to be work. No one has any problems articulating Shakespeare's beautiful iambic pentameter. Everyone on stage seems to be having a ball, and so the audience has one too.
Odette plays Hero with a quiet modesty that seems unforced, and when it comes her turn to be prankish, when she and the other women play their practical joke on the sophisticated Beatrice, she is true to Hero’s character. Mischief becomes her just as much as modesty. As a young actor, Harris is surprising as Claudio, who walks a tightrope between naiveté and manliness and somehow keeps his respect in balance between simplicity and gullibility.
Brooks and Coleman, as the flippant couple, jokingly aggravate one another. Benedick will have none of Beatrice, or any woman, until his friends trick him into believing that she is in love with him. In the merry war between Beatrice and Benedick, both actors shine playing the characters honestly and with a sense of mad fun. When Beatrice first insults Benedick as “the court’s jester,” his indignation verges on apoplexy. Another time when she approaches him, he pleads with the court to send him into foreign service. When he hears friends pretending Beatrice is in love with him, his bewilderment is real and hilarious. Brooks is properly caustic as she reveals, in the beginning, Lady Beatrice’s sharp edge of her tongue. Yet at play’s end, she runs into the arms of her wide-eyed lover.
Bumbling Constable Dogberry is played by a woman, Lateefah Holder, and her crackling aide Verges is the funny Erik Laray Harvey. There’s plenty of music, from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” to “America the Beautiful,” and a handful of fine original songs by Jason Michael Webb. There are also some hot group dancing numbers by choreographer Camille A. Brown. The summery scenery is by Beowulf Boritt, colorful contemporary costumes by Emilio Sosa, and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. What a great way to greet the summer in Central Park.