“Much Ado” opens at Cal Shakes

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Way back in the May 1988 edition of American Theatre, Zelda Fichandler wrote “And suppose that one assigned roles freely, without prediction from history or from one’s old habits of thought. What if one took nontraditional casting as far as one could?” That is to say without regard to specifications of age, race or gender, those (mostly) easily seen points of identity, but without abandoning those specifications. In other words, let a woman play a man as a man.

The call for this kind of casting has been taken up many times since, and we have seen it occur consistently in the past decade in the Bay Area. But I’ve seldom seen it so completely achieved as it has been in Cal Shakes’ opening show, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. And it’s fabulously to the play’s benefit.

The play, famously, is about warring couples. One couple, composed of Benedict and Beatrice, refuses to recognize their own attraction and admiration for each other. The other couple, Claudio and Hero, recognizes their love for one another but fail to recognize each other’s devotion, leading to fatal jealousy. It’s classic Shakespearean comedy. Rife with confusion, duplicity and misunderstanding.

What better opportunity to take “nontraditional casting as far as one can”? Casting greying-at-the-temples veteran actor James Carpenter, he of the well-defined jaw, as the sharp-witted and sharp-tongued gentlewoman Beatrice, played without wig and only an aquamarine ladies coat to designate his role. And Stacy Ross, who most recently has played the very female roles suited to her delicate features and lithe body, as the wry and determined bachelor, Benedick, dressed in suit and waistcoat. Lovely and voluptuous Denmo Ibrahim plays the jealous Claudio, her curly dark hair cascading down her military jacket.

It doesn’t stop there. Indeed, gets more and more complex. More and more fun.

Everyone plays multiple roles, regardless of gender change. Lance Gardner makes a gorgeous gentlewoman Ursula, as well as a stolid Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon. Rami Morgan plays Hero’s attendant Margaret, the rogue Borachio and the Friar. Safiya Fredericks plays the innocent and adoring Hero, and Verges, Constable Dogberry’s witless subordinate. Patrick Alparone plays the wicked Don John, the rogue Balthasar and a Watchman. And Anthony Fusco crashes through class barriers by being both Leonato, governor of Messina, and Dogberry, clown constable extraordinaire.

In order to help with the identification, the director, Jackson Gay, and the adaptor, Kenneth Lin, have tacked a beginning onto the play. They introduce the play’s main action with a behind-the-scenes reenactment put on by the caterers at the wedding of Hero and Claudio. There the caterers gossip about their employers, going through all the characters at the wedding, shifting their costuming so that you know that the two rogues, Borachio and Balthasar, will be wearing brightly colored watch caps, Beatrice, that aquamarine coat, and Hero, a dress with rhinestone epaulettes. Etc. It all goes by too quickly to solidify the roles/costumes in your mind. But it works well enough. Fortunately, Carpenter and Ross keep the lead roles of Beatrice and Benedick throughout the majority of the play. We in the audience, after all, can only handle so much confusion.

As to the play itself? This is, after all, the great Shakespeare. He can’t be beat for wit, language, incisive portrayals and a seemingly boundless (and forgiving) understanding of human silliness. The brilliant casting and acting add a shimmer of humorous Bay Area diversity and CalShakes professionalism. All to the best.

– Jaime Robles


Cal Shakes’ production of Much Ado About Nothing continues through June 19. For tickets and information, visit or call 510-548-9666.

Photo: James Carpenter plays Beatrice to Stacy Ross’ Benedick in Cal Shakes’ production of “Much Ado About Nothing” now at the Bruns Amphitheater. Photo by Kevin Berne.