Much Ado About Nothing review – all-black show is exuberant but muddled | Stage

There’s a war going on, somehow, somewhere. Or maybe several wars. In Much Ado About Nothing, at Shakespeare in the Park, Don Pedro and his corps have just returned from battle. That so many of the maroon-outfitted soldiers are carrying signs like “I Am a Person” and “Restore Democracy Now” suggests that they are campaigning for an acknowledgment of a shared humanity. And over at Leonato’s McMansion, where these soldiers have arrived for some needed R&R, men and women are fighting, dirty and clean, for the same thing, though with a lot more dance breaks. Much Ado is a comedy entangled in a tragedy, Kenny Leon’s uneven, exuberant production, at war with itself, rarely knows where to aim.

Danielle Brooks, a star of Orange Is the New Black, leads the all-black cast as Beatrice. (Why an all-black cast? Why not?) Messina, a Sicilian port, has been recast as an Atlanta suburb. On the balcony of Leonato’s house, its grounds studded with peach trees, Brooks stands on a balcony, wailing Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (Juilliard-trained, Brooks has a gorgeous, growly alto). The song then joins, uneasily, with America the Beautiful. A Shakespeare comedy has to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today, so Don Pedro’s co-ed company enters, a unit that includes Benedick (Grantham Coleman with a Kanye-esque bleach job), Beatrice’s ex, and Claudio (Jeremie Harris), the beloved of Beatrice’s cousin, Hero (Margaret Odette).

Predictably, the course of true love needs some serious repaving. Hero and Claudio are thwarted by a dastardly, bastardly plot, courtesy of Hubert Point-Du Jour’s trim, fiendish Don John. Beatrice and Benedick have no one to blame but their lippy, stubborn selves. So it’s up to the other characters to dupe them into ardor.

Danielle Brooks and Grantham Coleman

Danielle Brooks and Grantham Coleman. Photograph: Joan Marcus

If neither couple has particular chemistry, the leads are individually attractive and mostly charismatic, though this is very much Brooks’s show. When the play’s energy flags – as it often does between dance numbers, because Leon doesn’t wholly trust the verse – she boosts it pretty much on her own, with big energy and big gestures and big facial expressions. She is grandstanding, sure, but she is also listening and responding to her castmates. She has at least three distinct varieties of side eye.

The busy production rarely relaxes into itself, at least when people are talking. The best moments are when the whole cast assembles and Camille A Brown, the splendid choreographer who also created the step dances for Choir Boy, playfully sets them shaking. Leon has made some of the comedy too broad (the night watch, which wallows in stereotype) and some of it not broad enough. Coleman, commanding and sensitive in Choir Boy, does not initially seem down to clown, but he gets there.

Any genuine production of Much Ado About Nothing has to deal with the darkness at its core, the idea that one wrong word, one wrong action, could render a woman worthless, better dead than alive – at least that’s what her own father (Chuck Cooper, occasionally struggling with the lines) insists. The “Nothing” in the title is Elizabethan street speak for vagina and whether or not one particular vagina still has its hymen intact is a major plot point. Leon seems to acknowledge it only fitfully, until a final, capricious gesture sweeps it away entirely.

The ending moments undermine the production, asking how much any particular bond or relationship can matter in the context of a larger conflict. Plenty, if you’re asking me. Leon seems to see it differently. “Only love can conquer hate,” Brooks sings in a reprise. But the other characters have left the stage.

Source link