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Theatre in Review: Much Ado About Nothing (New York Shakespeare Festival/Delacorte Theatre)

Danielle Brooks, Grantham Coleman. Photo: Joan Marcus.

When first announced, this new Much Ado About Nothing seemed deeply unnecessary, given Jack O'Brien's delightful production at the Delacorte only five years ago. A screwball staging with a prosecco fizz, it featured the ideal pairing of Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater as Beatrice and Benedick, supported by the likes of Brian Stokes Mitchell, John Glover, Pedro Pascal, and Ismenia Mendes, along with gorgeous scenery and costumes by John Lee Beatty and Jane Greenwood, respectively. Was it really time for another go-round, so soon, with Shakespeare's ever-popular romantic comedy?

One look at Beowulf Boritt's set design, however, and it is clear that any assumptions should be swept away like the remains of last night's party. The designer has placed onstage a stunning brick-and-slate house exterior with a set of stairs leading to a second-floor gallery. The building sits on a vast green lawn, complete with a stone patio and an array of peach trees at upstage right. On the house are two enormous signs, announcing "Stacey Abrams 2020." Clearly, we're not in Messina, the play's original setting, anymore.

Instead, the setting is a posh Atlanta suburb, like Druid Hills, inhabited by members of the black bourgeoisie. This thoroughly twenty-first century note is underscored at the top of the evening, when Beatrice and her lady friends perform a mash-up of "America" and the Marvin Gaye classic "What's Going On?" The male characters are reimagined, too: As the program notes point out, most of them are military, yet the play never alludes to a specific conflict; here, they are social justice warriors, carrying signs that say, "Hate is not a family value" and "Restore democracy now." The time frame is the day after tomorrow and an entirely new -- and humane -- populism is making on the march.

The genius of Kenny Leon's production is its unusually lucid rendering of Shakespeare's text combined with a thoroughly contemporary view of its battle of the sexes. It's an inspired notion that binds the sophisticated farce of Beatrice and Benedick's sharp-tongued wooing to the darker, more melodramatic subplot in which the innocent young Hero is slut-shamed (to use the current locution) by the villainous Don John. Deceit is everywhere, both merry and malicious: Beatrice and Benedick are gulled into believing each yearns for the other; Hero, smeared by baseless lies, fakes her death to expose the scheme against her. Shakespeare hands the advantage to the ladies, however, and, in this production, they seize it, without apology and to triumphant effect. A feminist point is made, with good humor and a bent toward forgiveness, making for an uproarious evening that sends a fresh, optimistic breeze wafting through the Delacorte.

It all works because Leon has at his command performers who can neatly turn an Elizabethan phrase while making it sound like present-day speech. He also has in Danielle Brooks a notably sassy and original Beatrice. In a role that usually goes to willowy, brittle high comediennes, Brooks -- best-known for the ladies-in-prison video series Orange is the New Black and the recent revival of the musical The Color Purple -- is something else altogether. Plus-size and curvy, outfitted with long, luxurious braids and a Technicolor collection of couture, she is an authoritative commentator on the pitfalls of romance, banning male nonsense with blasts of cool common sense and cutting fools down to size with a flick of her delightfully forked tongue. She is adept at her own brand of wordplay, referring to her romantic nemesis as "Bena-dick;" peremptorily halting the insinuations of a lady in waiting with "What pace is this they tongue keeps?," and amusingly running through a list of possible male types only to dismiss them all highly unsatisfactory. Listening in on her friends' claims that Benedick secretly loves her, she hides out in the audience, her face a shifting map of rage, astonishment, and wounded pride.

In Grantham Coleman, Brooks has a Benedick worthy of her formidable wit. Rangy, rail-thin, his hair died a most improbable blonde color, he is possessed of a sleepy-eyed look that seems to tell the world, "You've got to be kidding." Utterly self-absorbed, yet capable of appreciating Beatrice's insults like the professional verbal fencer he is, his composure crumbles when he hears that Beatrice carries a Lady Liberty-sized torch for him. He is seduced by degrees: Having succumbed to Beatrice's charms, he struggles to pronounce the word "marriage," hanging onto the "m" for dear life. Indeed, both would-be lovers have a lot of living down to do: Caught sharing a tender moment, he grabs a broom and frantically begins tidying up the patio while she hurls herself to the ground, examining the grass with the eye of a dedicated botanist. This is a peerless pairing that lights up the Delacorte with plenty of adult fun.

The rest of the company is equally adept. Chuck Cooper is authoritative as Leonato, father of Hero, on whose estate the plot unfolds; Margaret Odette is an unusually sophisticated and assertive Hero, who makes a substantive gesture of revenge when her innocence is finally reasserted; Jeremie Harris deftly tracks the progress of Claudio, Hero's lover, coldly rejecting her, then falling to the ground in penitence when his error is exposed; Billy Eugene Jones is a witty and affable Don Pedro, commander of the military; and Herbert Point-Du Jour mordantly cuts through the onstage foolery as Don John, author of the plot against Hero. One mild disappointment is the Dogberry of Lateefah Holder, a case in which cross-gender casting may not be ideal: Dogberry, with his pretensions and malapropisms, is an expression of pomposity that is, I think, uniquely male; admittedly, however, she has a great deal of fun with the characters' insistence that being called an "ass" is the highest of compliments.

Still, the evening flies on brilliant verse, fluently rendered; deft physical gags (including a fairly spectacular tumble by Beatrice); hip-hop flavored music by Jason Michael Webb; some soaring vocalizing; and antic choreography by Camille A. Brown. Boritt's expansive scenic design is given some lovely dappled looks, with pastel undertones, by the lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski. Emilio Sosa dresses the men in imaginatively rendered and highly flattering military uniforms and the ladies in fashions so up to date that you'll swear that went shopping that afternoon. Jessica Paz's sound design does battle with the ambient sounds of Central Park and wins a decisive victory.

In bringing the play's light and dark sides closer together, Leon makes a point that couldn't be more relevant: When the play's male characters dismiss or deceive the women around them, they do damage to everyone, themselves included. Interestingly, as everyone (except Don John) basks in the glow of forgiveness, the director adds a melancholy coda in which the army departs, taking up again the cause of restoring civility and shoring up democracy. "Only love can conquer hate," sings Beatrice, in a reprise of "What's Going On." Especially if you wonder what's going on in this country right now, this Much Ado can be a balm for the soul -- but for anyone it is a fresh and pristine look at one of the most perceptive comedies ever written. -- David Barbour

(12 June 2019)

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