Theater review by Raven Snook
As the "Stacey Abrams 2020" posters plastered on the set suggest from the get-go, Shakespeare in the Park's modernized new production of Much Ado About Nothing is powered by strong women of color—and most of the actresses in Kenny Leon's all-black ensemble command authority thrillingly as they win our laughs and hearts. When Don Pedro (Billy Eugene Jones) and his pals Claudio (Jeremie Harris) and Benedick (Grantham Coleman, adorably goofy) return from a seemingly civil rights–related war, they're keen to spend time with the ladies in the home of their host, Leonato (Chuck Cooper): nubile Hero (the refreshingly forceful Margaret Odette) and tenacious quipster Beatrice (Orange Is the New Black’s radiant Danielle Brooks). While Hero and Claudio hook up relatively smoothly, at least at first, longtime frenemies Beatrice and Benedick would rather fight than flirt—until their meddling friends get involved.
The villain of the play is Don Pedro's dour and dishonest half-brother, Don John (Hubert Point-Du Jour), but most of the others also engage in deception to get what they want, and although their chicanery is inspired by romance, it can easily be manipulated into violence and hate. Leon's lucid production starts out frolicsome and funny; Brooks luxuriates in the humor, turning even the pronunciation of Benedick’s name into a punch line. But the show turns wistful after Hero and Claudio's nuptials are scuttled by John’s duplicity. Beatrice's anguished "If I were a man" speech is particularly poignant, calling to mind all the capable women, especially black ones, who've been denied a seat at the table.
That potent message is slightly muddied by Leon's one major misstep: the casting of Lateefah Holder as the buffoonish, malaprop-prone constable Dogberry. (Perhaps because it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to be laughing at her or rooting for her, many of the jokes don’t land.) But this free outdoor production gets so much else right, from the glorious dance breaks choreographed by Camille A. Brown to the stately mansion set by Beowulf Boritt and stunning costumes by Emilio Sosa. As much fun as this Much Ado provides, however, it isn’t all a romp. After the climatic and joyous finale, a somber button reminds us that the battle of the sexes and the battle for equality both are far from won.
Delacorte Theater (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Kenny Leon. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.