All that to say that last night I saw my absolute favorite production of this play. Period. The Public Theater made history this year by having its first ever all-black cast at the Delacorte Theater. I didn't know most of the actors beforehand, but I knew Danielle Brooks played someone called "Taystee" in Orange Is the New Black (which I've never seen). She apparently turned down other projects to do this because, as a black actress of a particular size, she never gets to do roles like this.
I'm going to spoil the heck of this because this production only runs for a couple more weeks and I suspect none of you will get a chance to see this. I'll obviously be spoiling the play, and if you have somehow missed the bajillion productions of this text, then that's on you.
The stage, as you might have seen on my Facebook page, is the courtyard of a large house in, one might presume, Atlanta, Georgia. There are two large banners on the facade that say "STACEY ABRAMS 2020." (Danielle Brooks said in an interview that the production is *set* in 2020.) The first thing you see as the play starts is a small group of women -- Hero, Margaret and Ursula) coming out and sitting around a small table downstage right. Beatrice steps onto the landing of the house (*big applause for Danielle Brooks*) and starts singing Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On." She makes her way down the steps to the group at the table, and as she finishes the first verse Ursula starts singing "America the Beautiful," with Beatrice punctuating the pauses with "what's goin' on." It's a lovely musical moment but I wasn't sure what the purpose of it was. Let's stick a pin in that for now.
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate.
Then we have the opening dialogue, announcing Don Pedro's approach. The director, Kenny Leon, has carefully trimmed the dialogue of any reference to place or time. Don Pedro of Aragon is just Don Pedro, and he is not coming from Messina, he's just coming. And almost immediately there is a refreshing difference in how the dialogue sounds from actors who so rarely get a chance to play with this language. "He hath every month a new sworn brothah" is but one example. I have always loved Branagh's Shakespeare stuff because listening to how his actors deliver the lines helps me understand them better, but I have never heard Shakespeare sound more alive and accessible than I did last night.
Don Pedro and his entourage arrive. Great laughter from the audience as car horns honk and an SUV pulls into the "driveway" (a little path behind the stage), like company coming for the weekend. Don Pedro's men are dressed like a regiment of sorts, and they're carrying protest signs (not homemade stuff, these are all custom printed with the same coloring and font). I can't for the life of me remember the text on any of them, but they felt like things you'd see at a BlackLivesMatter protest. The signs are stacked against the house facade stage left. We'll also put a pin in *that* for now. I don't think Don Pedro's men are meant to be an actual militia. I think the uniforms are more symbolic, but they're certainly a team of activists at the very least. Cue plot stuff and immediate skirmish of wit betwixt Signor Benedick (at least once pronounced BeneDICK) and the Lady Beatrice.
What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?
Plot stuff. Claudio confesses his love for Hero. Benedick balks. The Prince (Don Pedro) concocts a plan to propose to Hero on Claudio's behalf and get her father's blessing. And then we meet the Prince's bastard brother Don John, along with John's goons. This was the one aspect I was kind of meh about. Don John is written as a cartoonish, comical, capital-V Villain; he basically says as much in the dialogue. This is why Keanu Reeves' portrayal of him in the Branagh version has always been my favorite. There's something about his on-the-nose delivery that really suits the character. The actor last night played him more straight, which wasn't as interesting or as fun to me. Oh well. It had to have *some* flaw.
Next, the party, which was GREAT. We start with the family dressed to the nines, and dialogue that centers on Beatrice's scorching observations about men.
I have a good eye, Uncle. I can see a church by daylight.
Then the rest of the revelers enter -- hip-hop music, modern dancing (much of which was synchronized) and masked shenanigans ensue.
Then the torturous marriage proposal and Claudio's knee-jerk jealous fit. Watching this whole sequence, it occurred to me for perhaps the first time how little characterization there is to Hero, especially for the first half of the play. Until the wedding, she barely even has any dialogue. She is quite literally there to be fallen in love with (and of course, after that, she exists to be wronged by men, metaphorically "fridged" to force a man to change his tune -- which he DOESN'T until he finds out he was duped by John). This has LONG been a beef of mine (and, I'm sure, many others) with this play, and this production does what it can to fix that, but cannot do so entirely.
Thus answer I in the name of Benedick,
But hear these ill news with the ears of Claudio.
Anyway, then, of course, we get the other, more benign plot -- getting Beatrice and Benedick to fall in love with one another. There are a couple of lines that seem to suggest that they might have had a *thing* in the past ("You always end with a jade's trick. I know you of old." and "won it of me with false dice," which *could* be interpreted in other ways, but could also be references to a prior relationship), but this production doesn't take that bait, and you don't really need to. What I like about this plot is how easily the Prince, Leonato, Claudio and Hero are able to accomplish their mission, simply by leading both Benedick and Beatrice to believe that the other loves *them*. That may seem fanciful, but I think this is one of the more realistic bits of the play -- people seriously underestimate the persuasive power of *being* loved.
If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer;
his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love gods.
The third-party courtship of Benedick and Beatrice is quite well done. I've seen a LOT of ridiculous stagings of the "eavesdropping" scenes. It's easier to do this more naturally on film, where you don't have to have the actor positioned where the audience can see both them and the people they're eavesdropping on, but this staging worked remarkably well. I mean, it's *supposed* to be a bit ridiculous, and part of the fun is that the other characters *know* they're listening (and in fact are counting on it). This Benedick is alternately positioned behind some bushes (where we can see his blonde head bobbing in time to Balthasar's music), hiding behind a post (he leaps from the bushes to the post and says "KOBE!") and eventually just runs behind their turned backs and sprints up the stairs to the landing. Beatrice's hiding is even better. Danielle Brooks comes out into the audience, squeezing between audience members and momentarily taking their seats. The two sequences are really well done. Also, another memorable line change to remove references to place setting -- "He is the only man of Italy." becomes "He is the only man," which reads very differently indeed. Hero is basically saying of Benedick, "He fiiiiiine."
Then we come to the eve-of-the-wedding treachery and this production made an interesting choice. Most productions I've seen show us what Claudio sees -- what appears to be Hero "talking with" (a Shakespearean euphemism for screwing) another man in a window. This version doesn't show that to us at all, and it occurs to me that we don't need it. There is no such scene in the text, and I think that seeing it actually lends believability to John's lie. I mean, we *know* John and Borachio have been plotting this, but it feels more understandable for Claudio to believe it when we see what's shown to him. This production does not give Claudio that plausibility, which I think is smart. Because we already know from very early on how prone he is to jealousy, even suspecting one of his closest friends of moving on Hero. It's also a matter of practicality since this version of Hero and Margaret look very different, with very distinct hairstyles, whereas in the Branagh version, for example, they are deliberately given the *same* hairstyle and Claudio only sees Margaret from behind (though Branagh also shows us Hero sleeping alone elsewhere in the house, just in case there's confusion).
And now comes Dogberry, Verges and the Watch -- this comedy's comic relief. Michael Keaton is still my One True Dogberry, but I *LOVED* Lateefah Holder as a rarely seen female Dogberry (her delivery of "pretty piece of flesh" is one for the ages). She's not as buffoonish as most Dogberrys, but she's still plenty absurd.
Adieu: be vigitant, I beseech you.
The first wedding (which in this version begins with an African dance) is always a shocking emotional heel turn, and it is especially so in this version. Claudio throws Hero halfway across the stage, and it is HORRIFYING. I'm not sure how much of the dialogue they edited here, but it did feel like they emphasized her supposedly sleeping with another man on the eve of her wedding (which, if it were true, *would* be something to object to, though perhaps not so publicly and definitely not so violently) more than the idea that she's "soiled" because she's not a virgin on her wedding day, which is frequently how this scene reads.
And what have I to give you back whose worth
May counterpoise this rich and precious gift?
The aftermath scene with Beatrice and Benedick is one that I'm sure every actress who has ever played Beatrice absolutely lives for, and Danielle Brooks CRUSHES this. When she said "OH GOD, THAT I WERE A MAN; I WOULD EAT HIS HEART IN THE MARKETPLACE," there were CHEERS. This is about as serious as any of Shakespeare's comedies gets, and this was a hell of a mood to leave the audience in just before an intermission.
- Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?
- Yea, and I will weep a while longer.
This cast was exceptionally strong and more than up to the task of conquering the language and giving it their own spin. Kenny Leon has done more than just stage yet another version of Much Ado with black actors. These are black *characters*, with all the history and context that entails.
Leonato and Antonio (the actor playing Antonio also doubles as Verges)
I cannot say enough about Danielle Brooks. Big women rarely get to fall in love on stage or screen, and it was a treat to see Brooks be fiery and smart and sexy, and see Benedick be Here. For. It.
I pray thee now, tell me for
which of my bad parts didst thou first fall in love with me?
The second wedding plays much as it does in other productions ... at first. And this is where Hero gets to actually shine in this version. As Claudio is pledging his troth to his unseen bride, I'm fairly sure they cut a couple of lines because Hero unexpectedly speaks RIGHT the hell up and defiantly reveals herself. She gives the short speech about her metaphorical death and before Claudio can joyfully kiss her, she SLAPS HIM IN THE FACE. The entire audience cheered, including me. I'm not usually a fan of people hitting each other in fiction, not even when someone is trying to portray "girl power" by having a woman slap a man. But this felt earned (remember: he THREW her halfway across the stage). And it still feels believable that she still loves him; but this is a much less passive Hero, and I loved it.
A miracle! here's our own hands against our hearts.
Now for those two pins from earlier. We get the lovely denouement to the Benedick and Beatrice romance, but no sooner does Benedick tell the Prince "get thee a wife" but a siren sounds. I actually thought it was something in the park, but it was part of the play. Everyone stops, the soldiers pick the signs back up (which were on stage the whole time) and they and the Prince march out. It might take a bit of work to suss out what's happening here, but it's not that hard (*side eyes the white people I overheard Not Getting It on the way out of the park*). As I said before, these soldiers are a symbol of black activism. The siren sounds, alerting the company to a situation that needs their attention. After they leave, Beatrice and the remaining cast sing "What's Goin' On" again.
And THIS is why having an all-black cast made this a unique experience. Traditional productions close with a dance, celebrating the two marriages. These characters don't get a chance to do that. It's a stark reminder that black people in America are CONSTANTLY having to fight to have the same rights as everyone else, including the right to EXIST. It is one of the many ways in which they are systematically at a disadvantage. This play never forgets that. Those picket signs never leave the stage. They are always at the ready.