Halfway through the first act of Shakespeare in the Park‘s Much Ado About Nothing, I found myself on Danielle Brooks’ lap.
The exemplary performer, of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, is playing Beatrice in this slapstick-infused, jolt-of-energy spectacle directed by Kenny Leon. Spying on her cousin Hero (Margaret Odette), Brooks’ Beatrice hides, rather conspicuously, in the audience.
She occasionally supplants an audience member and coaxes him or her onto the actress’ knee, the better for cover. Yielding to the demands of the scene, I did my best to stand between Brooks and the spotlight. Easier said than done.
She stars opposite the equally dynamic Grantham Coleman as Benedick in this modern-dress production, set in the near future of 2020 Georgia. (A “Stacey Abrams 2020” banner hangs on the elegant Atlanta mansion of Beowulf Boritt’s wonderful set.)
Benedick’s boss, Don Pedro (Billy Eugene Jones), here the leader of a kind of militarized Black Lives Matter, and Beatrice’s uncle, Leonato (Chuck Cooper), set out to trick Beatrice and Benedick, who “never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them,” into falling in love.
Luckily, there’s a week of house parties leading up to the nuptials of Hero and Claudio (Jeremie Harris), Pedro’s lieutenant, at which to get the job done. In this production Beatrice and Benedick seem fated for each other, with or without interference. Coleman, hilarious and rubber-faced, and Brooks, sass personified, have even more stage chemistry than real-life couple Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe did in the same roles in the Park five years ago.
Leon has created a stage version of a hangout movie, relaxed, authentic, and eminently enjoyable. There’s almost a hint of Spike Lee – streetwise, politically sharp, and shot through with music. (Brooks begins and ends the show with a powerful rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which works better in its introductory context than it its slightly hamfisted political one, at the end.) Almost all of the performers sing beautifully, and those who can’t dance even better.
Leon’s all-black cast delivers Shakespeare’s language in the rhythms of contemporary black America. Brooks even throws in a Cardi B “okurrr” at the end of a monologue about choosing a husband wisely. In short, this Much Ado is always funny, but also fun.