Much Ado

I always endeavor to keep my promises, Gentle Reader. True to my word from my last post, I went to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park this past week to see the new production of Much Ado About Nothing. If you’re in New York in the next few days, you should absolutely go and see it, because it’s terrific.

It’s also the source of the latest brouhaha in our local theater community, courtesy of the production’s review by Jesse Green in The New York Times. It’s not like he panned the production – he did, at least, recognize its quality. But as I mentioned last week, this is a production that’s been conceived for a company of African-American actors, and let’s just say that Green seems to have…difficulties discussing this. The sentence he uses to get this idea across is, and I quote: “the cast [is] black – and not in a color-blind casting way, which would suggest they were pretending to be white.”

(Don’t take my word for it – here’s the link to the review.)

You caught that, right? The implication is that any time you’ve ever seen a non-white actor on stage in a classical role where race wasn’t a factor – say, James Earl Jones as King Lear, or Denzel Washington as Richard III, or pretty much goddam everything because there’s lots of great non-white actors out there – they were impersonating Caucasian actors. It’s…well, it’s a really goddam weird thing to say. And loads of my theater friends, and their friends, and their colleagues, and pretty much this whole city, have been taking Green to task for this.

Now, let’s give Green the benefit of the doubt for a moment. Again, it’s a positive review, and he clearly didn’t mean to be hurtful. Let’s assume that he was simply trying to discuss this production’s contemporary setting – a wealthy black suburb of Atlanta, some time in the very near future – and how this freed the actors to take a more contemporary approach in their delivery. He does indeed discuss that – in an even more awkward and borderline offensive sentence than the one I quoted above. Maybe, despite being a prominent writer for the Paper of Record, he just doesn’t have a way with words.

Except, this explanation – which I do believe – actually makes things worse. Because it assumes that Green found it surprising, and noteworthy, to hear Shakespearean language delivered in contemporary American accents. And this has been the Delacorte’s house style for the past decade.

I think I first noticed this in 2011, when Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well were playing in rep. I heard John Cullum speaking Escalus’ speeches in his familiar, folksy cadences – giving full value to the language, but not for a moment stressing the usual iambic patterns, or affecting any classical mien. As I listened, I realized this was the case with everybody, and so was clearly a deliberate choide – the actors were all using their natural accents, rather than speaking in the Standard American dialect which most stage actors are trained to use in classical texts. This is the dialect which mistakenly leads people to think we’re trying to sound British – please stop assuming that, it really gets annoying – but which is intended to represent American speech with our regionalisms removed, so they don’t get in the way of the story telling. By contrast, over the past decade, the Public has embraced these regionalisms as part of the storytelling, which fits in perfectly with their maxim (especially with the free Shakespeare productions) that the theater should be for everybody.

It doesn’t always work – I’ve generally enjoyed the Central Park productions ever since Oscar Eustis took over at the Public, but they’ve varied in quality. This Much Ado is one of the better ones I’ve seen at the Delacorte, and it’s one of the best examples of this “house style” I’m describing because it serves the play rather than interfering with it. Much Ado is mostly in prose, so there’s no verse to impede, and its pointed sexual banter is made clearer by the contemporary style. But again, to varying degrees, this is what the Public has been doing for a decade now.

And somehow, despite being one of this city’s premier theater writers, Green only noticed this when it was African-American actors speaking.

Which is really messed up.

I am extremely surprised, because as you might remember, I was looking forward to Green at the Times when he was first announced, as his reviews at New York magazine tended to be insightful. But while his replacement at New York, Sara Holdren, has emerged as the most thoughtful theater critic in my memory, Green’s work at the Times has been consistently sloppy and problematic. And it seems to be an institutional issue – Ben Brantley is as problematic as often as Green, and every theatre professional I know has some horror story about a particularly clueless review from a Times third-stringer.

What gives, guys?  What the hell is going on in the Times offices?

We’re living in crazy times, and even a frothy summer night’s entertainment is going to have to engage with those times somehow. This Much Ado does an admirable job of this. If you’re going to critique it – especially if you’re getting paid to critique it by the goddam New York Times – you need to know how to engage with it yourself. And – really, I can’t believe we even need to say this – you need to know how to talk about theater in order to do that. Anything else is dereliction of duty.

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