‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ Directed by Kenny Leon, Powerful Messages for an America in Crisis
From Emilio Sosa’s vibrant costumes to Beowulf Boritt’s impeccable set design (a landscape of roses, luscious, ripe-for-the-plucking peaches on the Georgia peach tree, the luxuriant front lawn, the Georgian-styled, two-story mansion-representative of an orderly, harmonious, idyllic world), this update of Much Ado About Nothing resonates as an abiding Shakespearean classic. Director Kenny Leon’s vision for the comedy with threads of tragedy evokes a one-of-a-kind production with currency and moment. This is especially so as we challenge the noxious onslaught of Trumpism’s war on democratic principles, our constitution and the rule of law.
Directed with a studied reverence for eternal verities, Leon, with the help of his talented ensemble, carves out valuable takeaways. They focus on key elements that gem-like, reflect beauty and truth in Shakespeare’s characterizations, conflicts and themes. By the conclusion of the profound, spectacular evening of delight, of sorrow, and of laughter, we are uplifted. As we walk out into a shadowy Central Park, our minds and hearts have been inspired to shutter fear and cloak our souls against siren calls that would lure us from reason into irrational insentience and hatred.
Kenny Leon has chosen for his setting a wealthy black neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia, whose Lord of the realm, Leonato (Chuck Cooper’s prodigious, comedic and stentorian acting talents are on full display), shows his political persuasion with prominent signs on the front and side of his house that read, “Stacey Abrams 2020.” The impressive “Georgian-style” mansion which could be out of East Egg, the upper class setting of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is ironic with the addition of its advocating support for Abrams.
With this particular set piece, we note Leon’s comment on black progress toward a sustained economic prosperity amidst a backdrop of oppression, if one considers the chicanery that happened during Abrams’ run for the 2018 gubernatorial election. It also is reminiscent of the house of the racist, misogynistic villain of Gatsby, the arrogant, presumptuous Tom Buchannan and other such elites (i.e. wealthy conservatives), who give no thought to destroying “people and things” of the underclasses with their policies. Yet Lord Leonato and his friends and relatives are not turned away from justice and empathy for others. This, the director highlights through this Shakespearean update, whose characters seek justice and truth and encourage each other to abide in kindness, love and forgiveness.
Leon approaches his vision of justice through love by weaving in songs and music. At the outset Leon incorporates such music with a refrain sung by Beatrice (the inimitable Danielle Brooks):
“Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying, brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying. You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”
As Beatrice finishes the refrain by asking “What’s happening?” her ensemble of friends which include Hero (Margaret Odette), Margaret (Olivia Washington), and Ursula (Tiffany Denise Hobbs), sing the patriotic ballad “America the Beautiful” as a prayer and inspiration for the country to follow its ideals of “brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” This is not a war-like unction, it a solicitation for peace and goodness. Clearly, the women importune God to “shed His grace” on America. One infers their feeling as an imperative for political and social change hoped for, in a true democracy which can guarantee economic equality and justice.
The arrangement of “America the Beautiful” is lyrical and soulfully harmonious. As the women sing this anointed version they transform the text from hackneyed cliche, long abandoned by politicos and wealthy Federalist Society adherents, and uplift it with profound meaning. They encourage us toward authentically pursuing justice, brotherhood and unity in love and grace, elements which are sorely tried during the central focus of Much Ado About Nothing, during Hero’s unjust slander and infamy until she receives vindication.
After the women finish singing, the men march in from the wars. Instead of arms, they carry protest signs decrying hate, uplifting love, proclaiming the right of democracy. Instead of a warlike manner they are calm. The theme of justice and the imperative for political and social brotherhood prayed for in the previous song is reaffirmed as we understand what the “soldiers” are fighting for. In Leon’s genius it is a spiritual warfare, a battle for the soul of American democracy. Leonato appreciates their endeavors and invites them to stay with him for one month to be refreshed and gain strength before they go back out for another skirmish against the forces of darkness.
The music and songs composed by Jason Michael Webb strategically unfold throughout the development of the primary love story between Leonato’s daughter, Hero (the superb Margaret Odette) and family friend Claudio (the excellent Jeremie Harris). And they follow to the conclusion with the funeral and redemption of Hero and her final marriage and dual wedding celebrations with the parallel love story between Beatrice and Benedick. The songs not only illustrate and solidify the themes of love, forgiveness, and the seasons of life, “a time for joy, a time for sorrow,” they unify the friends and family with hope and happiness through dancing and merriment. The melding of the music organically in the various scenes throughout the production is evocative, seamless and just grand.
After the men arrive from their protest, the director cleverly switches gears and the tone moves to one of playful humor and exuberance. With expert comic timing, Brooks’ Beatrice wags about Benedick in a war of sage wits and words. Coleman’s Benedick quips back to her with equal ferocity that belies both potentially have romantic feelings but must circle each other like well-matched competitors enjoying their “war” games as sport. They offer up the perfect foils to a plot their friends later devise using rumor to get Beatrice and Benedick to fall in love with each other in a twisted mix up that is hysterical in its revelations of human pride and ego.
The relationship between Beatrice (the marvelous Danielle Brooks) and Benedick (Grantham Coleman is her equally marvelous suitor and sparring partner) is portrayed with brilliance. The couple serves their delicious comedic fare with great good will and extraordinary fun. Their portrayals provide ballast and drive much of the forward action in the delightful plot events. Danielle Brooks gives a wondrously funny, soulfully witty portrayal. As Benedick, Grantham Coleman is Brooks’ partner in spontaneity, LOL humor, inventiveness and shimmering acuity.
Various interludes in Act I are also a time for male banter about the ladies Hero and Beatrice and the love match with Hero that friend of the family Don Pedro (Billy Eugene Jones) effects for his friend Claudio (Jeremie Harris). The scene between Benedick, Claudio and Don Pedro is superbly wrought with Benedick’s insistence he will remain a bachelor. The audience knows he “doth protest too much” for himself and for Claudio. The pacing of their taunts and jests is expertly rendered. The three actors draw out every bit of humor in Shakespeare’s characterizations.
Into this beauteous garden of delight, exuberance and order creeps the snake Don John (Hubert Point-Du Jour), brother of Don Pedro, and his confidante and friend Conrade (Khiry Walker). Though they support the fight for democracy, Don John is engaged in sub rosa familial warfare. We move from the macrocosm to the microcosm of the human heart which can be a place of extreme wickedness as it is with Don John who quarreled with his brother Don Pedro, his elder and does not forgive him. Don Pedro extended forgiveness and grace to Don John, which Don John feels forced to accept though he is not happy about it. Indeed, he is filled with rancor and seeks revenge, to abuse his brother and anyone near him, if the opportunity presents itself which it does.
The conversation between Conrade and Don John is intriguing for what Shakespeare’s characterizations reveal about the human condition, forgiveness and remorse. Indeed, Don John is reprobate. Whether out of jealousy or the thought that he has done no wrong, he feels bullied to accept his brother’s public forgiveness. The theme “grace bestowed is not grace received unless there is true remorse,” is an important message highlighted by this production through the character of evil Don John who eschews grace. Indeed, extending grace and forgiveness to such individuals is a waste of time. No wonder Don John would rather “be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace.”
Trusting Conrade, Don John admits he is a plain-dealing villain. When he learns of Claudio’s marriage, he plots revenge on Don Pedro by attacking his best friend and smearing Hero’s integrity and fidelity to Claudio. The jealous Claudio is skeptical, but later “proof” during a duplicitous arrangement with an unwitting Margaret, Claudio becomes convinced that Hero is an unfaithful, unchaste philistine.
Claudio’s jealous behavior and immaturity believing Don John turns goodness into another wickedness as evil begets evil. As they stand at the alter Claudio excoriates Hero as an unfit whore to the entire wedding party. Hero, injured unjustly by Don John’s wicked lie and Claudio’s extreme cruelty, collapses. In a classic historical repetition, once again misogyny raises its ugly head and condemns the innocent Hero destroying her once good name. Benedick, the uncanny Friar and Leonato stand with Hero. This key turning point in the production is wrought with great clarity by the actors so that the injustice is believable and it is shocking as injustice always is.
Thankfully, The Friar’s (a fine Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) suggestion to return Hero to grace and redemption in Claudio’s eyes by proclaiming her death to bring her again to a new life is effected with power. Finally, we appreciate a cleric who bestows love not condemnation or a rush to judgment! The emotional tenor of the scene is in perfect balance. Odette and Harris are heartfelt as is Cooper’s Leonato. The scene works in shifting the comedy to tragedy and of uplifting lies believed in as facts with wickedness overcoming love and light. Once again we are reminded that Shakespeare’s greatness is in his timelessness; that if allowed the opportunity for vengeance and evil, humanity will corruptly, wickedly use lies cast as facts to dupe and deceive the gullible, in this case Claudio.
I absolutely adore how the truth comes to light, through the lower classes represented by Dogberry (a hysterical Lateefah Holder) and her assistants who are witnesses to Don John’s accomplices to nefariousness. I also appreciate that all the villains in the work admit their wrongdoing; it is a marvel which doesn’t always occur the higher the ladder of power and ambition one ascends. But this is a comedy with tragic elements, thus, evil is turned to the light and Beatrice and Benedick the principle conveyors of humor are lightening strokes of genius which soothe us to patience until justice arrives right on time.
I also was thrilled to see that the remorseful, apologetic Claudio willingly accepts Hero’s recompense (Leon has Hero dog him in the face) as she unleashes her rage at his unjust treatment. These scenes of redemption and reconciliation ring with authenticity: Cooper, Odette and Harris shine.
The celebrations, masked dance, marriage between Hero and Claudio, Hero’s funeral and the final marriages are staged with exceptional interest and flow; they reveal that each in the ensemble is a key player in the action. The choreography by Camille A. Brown and the fight direction by Thomas Schall are standouts. Kudos also goes to those in the creative team not previously mentioned. Peter Kaczorowski’s gorgeous lighting design conveys romance and subtly of focus during the side scenes; Jessica Paz’s sound design is right on (I heard every word) and Mia Neal for the beautiful wigs, hair and makeup design receives my praise.
Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing is one for the ages. It leaves us with the men doing warfare for the soul of democracy leaving Leonato’s ordered world of right vs. wrong where the right prevails. Once again soldiers fight the good fight and go out to resist and stand against the world of “alternate facts” where chaos, anarchy, and the overthrown rule of law abide (at this point) with impunity. Leon counsels hope and humor; progress does happen, if slowly.
This production’s greatness is in how the director and cast extract immutable themes. These serve as a beacon to guide us through times that “try our souls,” and they encourage us to persist despite the dark impulses of money-driven power dynamics and fascist hegemony that would keep us enthralled.
I saw Much Ado About Nothing in a near downpour then fitful stop and start to continual light rain during which no one in the audience left. Despite this the actors were anointed, phenomenal! I would love to see this work again. I do hope it is recorded somewhere. It’s just wow. The show runs until June 23rd. You may luck out with tickets at their lottery. Go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
Posted on June 20, 2019, in NYC Theater Reviews, Off Broadway and tagged Chuck ooper, Danielle Brooks, Grantham Coleman, Kenny Leon, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare, Shakespeare in the Park, The Public Theater, William Shakespeare. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.