Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” lends itself to playing around, and the Public Theater has gone to town in its robust, entertaining and relevant up-to-date staging (May 21-June 23) as part of Free Shakespeare in the Park. The cast is all-black, and in this production Messina is plopped into the American South, presumably an Atlanta suburb, with the mansion around which the action abounds bearing a sign saying “Stacey Abrams in 2020,” the one “candidate” not yet running. Through an open door if seated at the right angle one can see a picture of Barack Obama on an inside wall. That’s just for starters.
The Beatrice in this production is played by the full-figured Danielle Brooks, who is best known for her long stint in Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and for her Broadway debut as Sofia in “The Color Purple.” As Beatrice she moves about like a powerful force of nature and comes across as blazing hot and sharp-tongued and at one point she tauntingly shakes her derriere as if to advertise her sexuality. Grantham Coleman as the initially reluctant but really smitten Benedick has his hands full with this Beatrice, who, while also smitten, is a very assertive modern gal who cannot be denied equality in their give-and-take sparring.
The play follows Shakespeare’s plot of conniving that soils the reputation of Hero (Margaret Odette), about to be married to soldier Claudio (Jeremie Harris), who believes the slander, which can be taken today as male bias against women. When the truth is revealed and the wedding is about to take place, Hero, before taking her vows, hauls off and gives Claudio a resounding smack in the face, teaching him a lesson that triggered a huge burst of applause at the performance I attended. It was a moment that epitomized the contemporary thrust of this romp.
Director Kenny Leon, abetted by choreographer Camille A. Brown’s snappy dancing, has staged the festive interpretation with the kind of music (by John Michael Webb) and bursts of singing one might expect in such a setting. I only wish the Bard could materialize to see what fun he spawned for a 21st century reprise. I can just imagine him saying in amazed recognition, “Methinks that is my play.”
The look of it all was a joy to behold on a clear summer night. The scenic design by Beowulf Boritt features what appears to be a solidly constructed building, with ample grounds surrounding it and a driveway into which an S.U.V. enters at one point. Central Park itself provides background foliage.
The costumes (designed by Emilio Sosa) are eye-filling, as is the design of wig and hair by Mia Neal, also credited for make-up design. This is a very good-looking staging.
What works especially well is the casting. I particularly enjoyed Chuck Cooper as the impressive Leonato, who is shaken with fury at his daughter Hero when she is falsely accused of having pre-marital relations with someone other than her intended, and newly furious at the culprits when the truth becomes known. Lateefah Holder is very amusing as the blustering, credit-seeking constable Dogberry.
Often when there is switching of settings in Shakespeare’s plays and contemporary attempts to be inventive, the results make one long for the conventional. But the spirit of this production fits neatly into the concept and enables one to have a very good time without feeling that the Bard would have anything to complain about. On the contrary, inherent in the ultimate romantic resolution is an appeal for peace and people getting along, a today-ring of hope without seeming heavy-handed. At the Delacorte Theater. Enter at 81st Street and Central Park West. Reviewed June 12, 2019.