Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing

California Shakespeare Theater, Orinda California

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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In Cal Shake’s creative new gender-bending version of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” much text was deleted and some was added, to various levels of success.

In a newly added prologue, we see a group of caterers cleaning up from a wedding party that is occurring off-stage. Flowers and dirty wineglasses are strewn about and a section of the Messina Catering truck is visible. The workers joke among themselves and then, the action gradually shifts, as they act out the story that led to the wedding, which, of course, is the tale of “Much Ado.”

The plot of this comedy involves the noble Leonato of Messina (Anthony Fusco), his young daughter Hero (Safiya Fredericks), his witty niece, Beatrice (James Carpenter, “Titus Andronicus,” “ Pygmalion”), Leonato’s friend, Prince Don Pedro (Lance Gardner), and two of his soldiers. Claudio (Denmo Ibrahim) is a young nobleman in love with Hero. Benedick (Stacy Ross, “Twelfth Night,” “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”), clever and acid-tongued, secretly adores Beatrice. Their friends’ machinations are required to help Beatrice and Benedick overcome their reluctance to recognize their love, and there is a bit of fun surrounding that acknowledgement. Don John (Patrick Alparone), Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, a no-goodnik of the first order, wreaks havoc between Hero and Claudio when he stages a scene of Hero’s supposed infidelity.

The adapters, Kenneth Lin and Jackson Gay, who decided to reduce the play to less than two hours sans intermission, removed a lot of “fat.” And when the audience is bundled up outdoors at night, a shorter production has more than artistic benefits. But, despite its fine acting and clever staging, this version may have also cut some “muscle” as well. The scenes involving the buffoon, Dogsberry (also played by Anthony Fusco), the constable of the night watch, and his crew were abbreviated. Happily, the funniest bit was included and very much enjoyed by the audience.

But the essence of “Much Ado” involves the courtship of Beatrice and Benedick, highlighted by their sharp repartee. I would have liked to have seen more of that wordplay, which is, after all, the special sauce of “Much Ado.” Bay Area favorite, Stacy Ross is wonderful as Benedick, with her body language and stage presence exuding touches of masculinity, whereas local luminary James Carpenter could have used a touch more femininity in his portrayal of Beatrice. He started the production with a bit of amusing coyness, but, didn’t carry it through.

With the Beatrice and Benedick banter and the Dogsberry interludes abbreviated, the play becomes over-weighted with Claudio’s anachronistic allegations of Hero’s infidelity, and her father’s bizarre wish that she should die rather than humiliate him.

Although a creative idea, the new prologue was a bit befuddling, especially, the transition between the actors playing the caterers and playing their roles in “Much Ado.” Although the program’s synopsis explained the introduction, (“The End is our Beginning), greater clarity is needed on stage. Moreover, the actors playing their roles in “Much Ado” continued to fuss with the caterers’ dirty dishes and wineglasses. Yes, it gave them something to do while on stage, but only added to the muddle.

Nevertheless, the prologue’s confusion did not deter the audience from enjoying the general merrymaking, the fun of the gender-reversed roles and the satisfaction of the happy ending.


© Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights Reserved

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