Most of us who first met Shakespeare at school probably learned, along with the meaning of iambic pentameter or the genealogical branches of the House of Plantagenet, that the reason people still study the Bard’s plays is that his characters and themes have universal appeal. Love, jealousy, ambition, hatred: even from a distance of 400 years, who can’t relate to those? Any skeptics might usefully test that notion this month, by going to see Much Ado About Nothing, the newest production from the Mobile Unit of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare Initiative. The look and feel of this show, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, with costumes by Clint Ramos, may appear “universal” only to residents of the five boroughs, with gangstas and cops, fashionistas and their rich daddies, but if the reactions at a recent performance are proof, its appeal easily crosses generational and socioeconomic lines.
New Yorkers know that Shakespeare in the Park is part of summer in the city but they might not realize that those free performances are made possible by the Public Theater, whose Shakespeare Initiative includes a dedicated outreach program. Offering “Free Shakespeare To Audiences With Limited or No Access To the Arts,” the Mobile Unit travels far beyond Manhattan, operating on the faith that those universal themes will speak to prison inmates, battered women, youth-at-risk and the elderly. The production of Much Ado that is currently at the Public for fee-paying audiences has put on many miles already, having traveled to correctional facilities, shelters and senior centers. Its mission alone would be enough to commend the project.
Nevertheless, there is much more than outreach going on in this Much Ado: not only does the team evidently have their hearts in the right place, they also demonstrate an instinctive feel for the text and their intended audiences, which means they bring a puckish sense of humor that borders on slapstick to Shakespeare’s best loved comedy. If laughter is the best medicine, it is also the most reliable ice-breaker and the M.O. of this Mobile Unit production; they take the fun literally into the audience members’ laps and even under their chairs.
Shakespeare’s wit is at its sharpest in this play that contrasts the earnest lovers Claudio and Hero with the love nay-sayers Benedick and Beatrice, who employ endless merriment at each other’s expense to hide the fact that they are head-over-heels for each other. The cast doesn’t let pass an occasion to show Elizabethan humor some New York attitude. When Beatrice asks Benedick which of her attributes he first admired in her, actress Samantha Soule, in a fuschia pant suit and black stilettos, raises her slouchy sweater above her hips and turns her back to Michael Braun, who takes the bait with a muffled growl of pleasure. The pair’s jousting provides the production’s comic backbone: Soule is almost cat-like, ever prowling for an opportunity to use her lightening fast repartee, while Braun’s Benedick is a crowing, prideful Chantecler in a too-small sports jacket and espadrilles.
Braun is the show’s buffoonish star but he gets some competition from the pair formed by Rosal Colón as a gangsta rapping Borachio and Lucas Caleb Rooney as the befuddled yet boastful Dogberry, version NYPD. Rooney was having so much fun on the night I attended, it looked briefly like he was never going to find a way to rein it in. Kwei-Armah’s direction evidently leaves room for improvisation to, rightfully, play off the energy of the audience, which that night included homeless from the Bowery Mission and felons being aided in the process of social reinsertion by the Fortune Society. Rooney’s farcical member of New York’s Finest was a definite hit with them but he also drew out scenes with his clowning and forced us to pay undue attention to this minor character. The rest of the cast puts in spirited, but thankfully more restrained performances, and A.Z. Kelsey and Ramsey Faragallah, who both do double duty, are particularly good: Kelsey as the love-struck Claudio and the reefer-smoking Conrade; Faragallah making as suave a Leonato as his Watchman is comically benighted.
Beyond the humor, the most pleasure of the production is to be had from simply listening to Shakespeare’s rapid-fire exchanges unencumbered by sets, props and scene changes, as well as getting up close and personal with the action. Traveling light and moving fast might be the philosophy behind this mobile production, and rightly so: a simple green square designates the area of play, around which the audience is seated on all four sides and only six rows deep. The text has been abbreviated for the purposes of brevity and narrative clarity, with no loss at all to the play’s emotional core. It’s a far cry from the period spectacle of Mark Rylance’s Shakespeare double bill at the Belasco but no less entertaining. And for those among us for whom theater isn’t a familiar experience, it is a noble endeavor that, as Shakespeare intended, gives pleasure to one and all.