May 30, 2016 § Leave a Comment
As has been their pattern for the last few years, the California Shakespeare Theater (CalShakes) has opened its season with a quirky, challenging take or adaptation of a Shakespeare play. (Last year it was an almost all-female Twelfth Night.) This year it is an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, which greatly streamlines the play, presented by a multi-ethnic and frequently gender-switched ensemble of eight.
Directed by off-Broadway fixture Jackson Gay, who also adapted the play with Kenneth Lin, the production is successful at condensing the sprawling plot into a tightly focused hour-and-a-half. It is especially entertaining when the gender-switched central couple, Beatrice (played by James Carpenter) and Benedick (played by Stacy Ross) hold the stage.
Storming the Gates?
Conceptually, it is far murkier. Set, according to the advanced publicity, behind the scenes of “the biggest celebrity wedding in America,” where the catering staff acts out their pieced-together understanding of the story underneath the scandal-plagued ceremony they have just served, the adaptation succeeds best when speeding quickly past the issues of race and class it promised, in that same preview, to raise. Much Ado does not prove a very good vehicle for discussing income inequality or class privilege, largely because the original plot focuses so clearly on critiquing male privilege. Additional text by Kenneth Lin, mostly a smattering of amusingly snarky couplets, alludes to the notorious indifference of the one-percenters, but does little to further the social critique. (No rants from me against updating Shakespeare, or conceptual productions. I usually favor them. Just noting that, except in the arena of gender politics already present in the play, this particular concept did not have much to say.)
The location dictated by this concept (the untidy staging space behind a wedding venue) limited scene designer Erik Flatmo’s options. His realistic, but therefore messy, set worked well as a floorplan without giving us much to look at. The most prominent feature on the set, a second-story balcony where we are told the play’s thug, Borachio, created the illusion of seducing the confusingly named heroine, Hero, was not used for that, or really any, purpose. Of course that event is only related through exposition in the play, although it is often interpolated as a mime, but then if you are not going to stage it – echoing the issue with the overall concept – why is this feature there at all?
Costume designer Karina Chavarin provides very effective pieces to be layered over the basic catering uniforms to indicate the fictional characters of the play. Visually, the heavy lifting is done by lighting designer Paul Whitaker, who not only shapes the stage with interesting compositions but helps us alternate between the framing device and the play itself with great dexterity.
What does work, and might have worked equally well without any added concept, is the virtuosity of the acting. The brilliant Anthony Fusco is underutilized in this production but alternates rigidly patriarchal Leonato with an “indignorant” Dogberry with speed and skill. Rami Margron, a company stalwart, is likewise used in the smallish parts of Margaret and Borachio, but single-handedly makes clear the power of cross-gender casting in the crucial but thankless role of the friar. Spoiler alert: after Hero is brutally rejected by her fiancé, her feudal lord and ultimately her father, it is the unassuming friar who steps forward to declare belief in Hero’s innocence of the charges of infidelity waged against her, and to provide the plan that ultimately resolves everything happily. In his one speaking scene, the friar explains that he knows Hero is telling the truth just by genuinely observing her reactions. Although in this production the character is still gendered male, watching a woman play the part provides a perspective on empathy that I have never experienced after seeing the role traditionally cast.
Stacy Ross gives us an original reading of Benedick through deftly handling the cross-gendering of her character so that she seems perpetually present as both the character and the underlying (female) cater-waiter presenting the story. Her intelligent interpretation of the part is informed by her gender, and we see her perspective in the way in which even she is surprised by the choices Benedick makes and the struggle to embody them.
The revelation of the night is James Carpenter in the role of Beatrice. He was seen a year ago cast perfectly to type in Pygmalion as Doolittle. It is hard to imagine someone less likely to play Beatrice, but he does it with such humanity and emotional grace that the part seems newly minted. Her pain and frustration reads as all the greater because it is clear (when situated on a male body) that they are entirely artificial limitations placed on her.
The versatile cast is rounded out by Patrick Alparone, Safiya Fredericks, Lance Gardner, and Denmo Ibrahim.
CalShakes is the big dog among Bay Area Shakespeare festivals. It has consistently high production values and standards. It is situated in the very diverse East Bay and has a great track record of developing and serving a contemporary audience. Much Ado does not quite deliver on its potential to comment on social disparity just down the freeway, but it is still a worthwhile night in the theatre–especially recommended for those who know the play well and are ready to see the traditional comedic war-of-the-sexes battle lines redrawn.
PS: CalShakes has a new artistic director, Eric Ting, who welcomed the audience warmly for this opening night but it will be later in the season, when he makes his directorial debut with Othello, before we get a full sense of what he will bring to the company.
California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, adapted by Kenneth Lin and Jackson Gay, with additional text by Kenneth Lin.
Directed by Jackson Gay. Designed by Eric Flatmo (set designer), Karina Chavarin (costume designer), Paul Whitaker (lighting designer), and Olive Mitra (sound designer/composer).
May 25–June 19, 2016
(Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturday Matinee June 18 at 2pm
Sunday Matinees at 4pm)
Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, CA 94563