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, carve 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.
William Shakespeare’s King Lear directed by Sam Gold is a must-see for its principal performances and its particular, stylized artistic design (scenic, sound, costume) which cleverly emphasizes the themes, symbolism and metaphors of the play. Above all, you should not miss Glenda Jackson who is a gobsmacking dynamo as the king who throws off the shackles of corruption and confronts his mortality to gain the wisdom of foolishness.
Jackson fits the titular role like it is made of her own flesh. This is a “once upon a lifetime” production that is astute, profound, if sometimes opaquely realized with regard to integrating Philip Glass’ music. Nevertheless, the director’s vision and design suggests overarching themes about appearance vs. reality, lies vs. truth, duplicity vs. authenticity, wisdom in madness and madness in wisdom.
Throughout, Jackson is a magnificent, who always rises to perform with sentience and power. Her Tony award winning portrayals in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women last year were unforgettable. Likewise, her performance in King Lear follows with equal ferocity and fervor.
Shakespeare’s characterization of the foolish king is among the most searing, poignant and challenging of roles. Only someone with the breadth, knowledge, sensitivity and prodigious talent like Ms. Jackson’s should attempt it. And that is why, from a woman’s perspective, her performance of this man who is a king and a fool is almost counterintuitive. It is no ready coincidence that Jackson’s Lear exemplifies a startling emotional grist that moves the king’s ethos from corruption to madness to wisdom with breathtaking logic and moment-to-moment life.
In her every action, every breath and movement, every grimace and expression of inner torment and fury, we search out Lear’s evolving humanity as we feel his pain and empathize with him. Shakespeare’s characterization of Lear engineers the development of the play.
It is Lear who creates the self-destructive vortex and whirls violently in it during the arc of his soul journey, buffeted by its abuse, yet buoyed up by a stalwart inner core of moral outrage and self-righteous fury. It is the recognition of his own corrupted judgment and the expose of his daughters’ wickedness that keeps him from drowning in complete madness. He is kept from this abyss by the Earl of Kent (the exquisite john Douglas Thompson) his Fool (Ruth Wilson in a humorous turn) the supportive Earl of Gloucester (the poignant and superb Jayne Houdyshell) and Gloucester’s son Edgar (Sean Carvajal) in a beautifully rendered performance) who becomes like the Biblical lunatic to escape the wrath of the court.
After Lear spurns his third daughter Cordelia (Ruth Wilson) his daughter Goneril (the excellent Elizabeth Marvel) and daughter Regan (the equally fine Aisling O’Sullivan) presumptuously usurp his authority. They command that he heel to their authority, despite his generous bestowal of wealth and lands upon them. Rather than accept his retinue that follows him to his daughters’ castles, they provoke their father’s wrath to pursue their own agendas.
Maintaining his nobility and identity, Jackson’s Lear refuses to “live” under their terms. Homeless, he braves the stormy abyss of his own soul damnation reflected in the harsh elements with the help of his Fool and the Earl of Kent, disguised as a servant. Ruth Wilson’s Fool comforts Lear, chides him and peppers his rages at Goneril’s and Regan’s ignominous treatment with humorous jibes and quips which strip Lear of his courtly pretensions. Indeed, the Fool guides him toward humility and brings this lofty king into an endearment with his own “base” but noble humanity.
Gold’s version of Lear stylizes the trope that Cordelia and the Fool are similar by having Wilson expertly play both parts. If this is, in Lear’s mind, an unconscious projection of remorse, self-flagellation and wish fulfillment to forgive his loving Cordelia and keep her near, the doubling of roles is sensible. Certainly, Cordelia is the only daughter who loves him. Thus, it is appropriate that Cordelia-the Fool leads the foolish old man into wisdom to help perfect his soul and expurgate the corruptions he has internalized, surrounded by treacherous courtiers and family in a lifestyle that has caved in his better person.
During Lear’s journey into the dark storms of mental uncertainty deranged by a gilded, false life in the gaudy kingdom that he must leave behind (mentally) to grow, he stumbles upon his real self. Centered in truths he never experienced before in his court, Lear strives to maintain his autonomy and identity. He eventually comes to realize what is important in his life-his humanity/mortality/liability to err in judgment which he is able to forgive as he presents himself as “a foolish old man.”
Gold’s decision (Miriam Bljether’s Senic Design) to regale the court in pretentious splendor hints at a surface gloss and artificiality/artfulness that distracts from confronting the underlying wickedness and greed in Lear’s court and kingdom. They are “dressing to impress” to cover up the incompetence, nihilism and emptiness within themselves. All that glitters is fool’s gold; it lacks value and worth in an inherently weak kingdom whose underlying principles (if there are any) do not guard against self-destruction and annihilation. Thus, in the stylization the director reveals the seeds of corruption and foreshadows the devolution of the kingdom that will follow hard and fast.
In this setting of “fool’s gold” we meet the commanding Lear and his three daughters at a celebration during which the string quartet stuffed into a corner plays the gorgeous music (original music by Philip Glass) which the courtiers and family neither acknowledge nor appreciate but treat as background noise to be ignored as they raise their voices over it. The family’s general lack of appreciation for their lavish lifestyle and their dismissal of the importance of the depth of their royal duties is reflected in their reaction to all the court accoutrements including a most civil tea service later in the play, held at an incongruent and ridiculous time and place. They are the arrogant, the privileged. Only Cordelia differs.
Thus, when Cordelia reminds the court of her loyalty to her father invested in her role as his daughter, we take this to heart. Do the others, after receiving their inheritance realize the obligations their father’s gift entails?
Hardly. Regan and Goneril from the outset are principally concerned with “getting all they can” through false pretense. They could care less about the rights and duties invested in their father’s gift of an early inheritance. It is no small wonder that Goneril and Regan rail about Lear’s visits with his soldiers. They want the inheritance with no strings attached, wishing to be free of their father forever. Rather than pay homage and give extended hospitality to a vibrant, authoritative king, they take advantage of his public punishment of Cordelia and suggest that he is off balance. It follows that they will provoke his wrath and become his enemies, so that their unconscious desire that he dies sooner rather than later becomes a reality.
An overarching metaphor the director emphasizes throughout the play, is the irony of incongruence-in the court’s lack of probity and unseemly excessiveness. Incongruence is everywhere represented by the “out-of-place” music at the celebration and elsewhere, music which never quite melds throughout the arc of the play’s development. The “over-the-top,” ostentatious, meretricious faux “gold” walls and the formal outfits (Ann Roth-Costume Design) exchanged for less formal ones as the kingdom devolves and the characters’ wicked selves are exposed, also appear incongruous as they are presented. So do the huge ceramic dog and lion.
The gilt walls are present throughout the play with a similarly hued curtain that characters stand before during various scenes (a further emphasis of the themes of incongruity and fool’s gold or an idea that Shakespeare often uses that appears in The Merchant of Venice: “all that glitters is not gold”). The “fool’s gold” walls and audience curtain are the ironic, anomalous backdrop against which the characters are measured and either found wanting in that they exemplify the trope or are antithetical to it.
These artistic elements reflect the malfeasant influence his daughters and husbands have over Lear, an influence which is shaken out of him on his stormy journey coming to the end of himself.
As the daughters and their husbands abuse the kingdom for their own nefarious ends all becomes rubble, wrecked by the familial divisions and war. The walls are the only remnants of the former “glory” of the court perhaps suggesting a universal concept. This kingdom is finished, but the spirit of duplicity (faux gold) of leaders’ pretense which they use to control their minions is present in every age. Eventually, by the conclusion the back gold wall takes on a different hue changed by shifts in lighting. Interpret this as you will, the hue doesn’t gleam, but suggests small points of light (starlight?) amidst characters comments (i.e. Kent: ‘The stars above us govern our condition”).
In the fateful universe of Shakespeare’s play, the arrogant, self-centered human beings are thwarted in the pursuit of their own wicked desires which are founded upon worthless principles (“fool’s gold”) and lies. This development is evident in the characterizations of Goneril, Edmund, Regan, the Duke of Cornwall. The other characters (Edgar, the Duke of Albany) who do not follow their lust for power rise to triumph. As object lessons, Cordelia, Kent, Gloucester, Lear are caught up in the hazard, subjects of poignant tragedy.
And it all begins in the “golden” court, when Lear pronounces his inheritance to his inherently wicked daughters enticing them to flatter him in a misaligned quid pro quo as if to prove his greatness and their fealty to him. Goneril and Regan oblige him; Cordelia does not. In that fell act, treason and wickedness are exposed. The wrong daughters receive the bulk of the inheritance, the right daughter is disinherited. The world is in chaos, turned upside down as duplicity usurps love and order.
Lear makes a public show of Cordelia’s punishment sealing his misaligned judgment which the others see may be further abused. Indeed, Lear’s malignity is revealed in a court which embraces and exploits it. And this evil sets in motion the parallel plot with the Earl of Gloucester and his treacherous, conniving son Edmund (the wonderful, insidious Pedro Pascal) who usurps brother Edgar’s inheritance and place in his father’s affections and legal authority.
In this secondary plot the illegitimate Edmund, who despises the goodness of his father, lies on his brother Edgar who is forced to escape with his life and go into hiding disguised as the madman beggar “poor Tom.” It is only when Lear, Kent and the Fool meet up with Edgar and take shelter in a hovel does Lear begin to understand his condition in light of poor Tom who is much worse off. In this beggar lunatic, he sees his true ethos without the vanities of the world and his court.
Lear journeys through his “madness” gaining wisdom and gradually throws off the misaligned corruptions of the “courtly mind,” represented by the “fool’s gold” set design. Lear becomes the humble, kingly fool. These scenes among Lear, the Fool, Kent and Edgar are particularly wonderful. The scenes between Carvajal’s Edgar and Houdyshell’s Earl of Gloucester when the blind Earl seeks his death are magnificently rendered by Houdyshell and Carvajal and incredibly touching and poignant.
Thus, the deeper evils of this court once hidden in the hearts of Goneril and Regan and her husband and Edmund, feed on themselves and grow as the villains wreck everything to gain the advantage, an advantage which is never sustained with the good sense and order to keep it. The director correctly has the nihilistic Goneril, Regan, The Duke of Cornwall and Edmund contribute to demolishing all order in the kingdom symbolized by the ripped up set interiors as the court is rocked from within and without by war. Considering that they annihilate their inheritance and the goodness of Lear’s gift to them, portraying their father as their enemy, that evil which was hidden by glamour and civility explodes full bore by the play’s conclusion.
Goneril’s mocking lasciviousness expresses her unrestrained wildness “going over to the dark side.” Marvel’s development of characterization is superb. Likewise O’Sullivan’s Regan as the raging, screaming shrew (evolving from the sweeter sister at the outset) appears even more “off the beam” crazy than her father, Lear. And so does her husband the Duke of Cornwall (Russell Harvard’s signing is emotionally powerful) whose rage is at times inarticulate and can only be expressed with frantic signing and frustrated slamming.
By the end, the court reaches its true level of craven wantonness. The debased Goneril and Edmund have sordid sex on the floor reveling in the chaos and rubble. Regan and Edmund plot against Goneril in the disordered wreckage which no one bothers to clear out. Cornwall is stabbed as the actors pick their way around the debris of the once “glorious” court, followed by Regan’s poisoning by Goneril for Edmund’s love. The director again reinforces the theme that wicked amorality has no tenability nor the substance to sustain order. As those who deserve to rule, Edgar and the Duke of Albany (Dion Johnstone) prove themselves wise and just in restoring a kingdom ruined by greed, lies, usurpation, corruption and treachery.
In his humbled, state after the madness of wisdom shines a truth he has learned, Lear states a key theme about his royal court: “robes and furr’d gowns hide all.” In another quote he states: “plate sin with gold, and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.” To “plate” sin with gold (as he had allowed) makes justice weak and breaks it.
By the end Lear gains the revelations of foolish wisdom for he has humbled himself with self-recriminations of his pride at discounting Cordelia’s goodness. We are uplifted by his reconciliation with Cordelia. We rejoice with him as she forgives him, and sorrow with him at her death which he follows with his own. In all of these emotional modulations of this iconic human being that is the recovered foolish king, Ms. Jackson just wipes out the audience.
Ms. Jackson accomplishes this because from the first scene to the last she assumes the mantle of the salty, unhoused, unbridled, tragic Lear and never strays in her focus and determination. As Ms. Jackson’s Lear comes to the end of himself, he manifests the truth that he is, as all men (and women) are great and small, a fool. In this human portrayal, we recognize we too are the kingly fools of our own universe. And we stink of our own mortal desires, mistakes, frailties. And perhaps that is in itself our royalty of revelation. It doesn’t get any better than that!
King Lear runs with one twenty minute intermission, three and one-half hours at the Cort Theatre (48th St.) You may find tickets and times at the website by CLICKING HERE.