AISLE SAY San Francisco


by William Shakespeare
Adapted by Kenneth Lin & Jackson Gay
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Directed by Jackson Gay
Bruns Memorial Amphitheater
100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, CA / (510) 548-9666

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Knowing that a man would play Beatrice and that a woman would play Benedick in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" might cause some trepidation.

But have no fear. Directing California Shakespeare Theater's production, Jackson Gay deftly guides James Carpenter and Stacy Ross through their roles as the famously bickering couple. Upon reflection, one recalls that in Shakespeare's time, all roles were played by men and boys.

More recently, it's not unusual to see women as men in the Bard's plays. Just last year, Cal Shakes successfully staged "Twelfth Night" with women in all but one role.

One reason why cross-gender casting for the leads and other roles works well in "Much Ado" is that no one makes a big deal of it. Except for one small role, the men aren't in drag and trying to be effeminate, and the women aren't stressing masculinity.

Therefore, one can just sit back and see how the director guides her eight actors, several of whom play multiple characters.

The basic plot finds Beatrice and Benedick at constant verbal odds, unwillingly to acknowledge to anyone, let alone themselves, that they love each other. It takes some trickery by other characters to bring them together.

The subplot involves Beatrice's cousin, Hero (Safiya Fredericks), who becomes engaged to Benedick's friend and fellow soldier, Claudio (Denmo Ibrahim). In their case, however, trickery almost tears them apart.

The manipulator here is the villainous Don John (Patrick Alparone). He convinces Claudio that Hero is unchaste, causing him to reject her in front of everyone, including the Friar (Rami Margron), at the altar.

It takes a malaprop-prone night watchman, Dogberry (Anthony Fusco), and his pals, along with the Friar, to set things right.

Kenneth Lin and Gay have adapted the play, with additional text by Lin, to streamline it to one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. Their most obvious change is the opening scene. In it a catering crew and some servants are cleaning up after a wedding and talking about what led to it.

This scene works well enough, but it can't compete with the real Shakespearean text that follows.

Besides Carpenter and Ross, who excel in any role they play, Fusco is outstanding both as the well-meaning but inept Dogberry and as Leonato, Hero's dignified father. He's especially memorable when Leonato denounces Hero after Don John's accusations.

Costumes by Karina Chavarin, set by Erik Flatmo and sound by composer Olive Mitra complement the production. Because the reviewed performance was a 4 p.m. Sunday matinee, lighting by Paul Whitaker couldn't be assessed.

However, a sun screen above most of the audience cast a shadow over the downstage action in the initial scenes, not a plus.

Overall, though, this is a fine way to start Cal Shakes' 25th season in its beautiful outdoor venue, the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater. It also marks the start of Eric Ting's tenure as artistic director. He succeeds Jonathan Moscone, who has taken a post with San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts after leading Cal Shakes since 2000.

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