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Cal Shakes’ cross-gender ‘Much Ado’ both funny and deep

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From left, James Carpenter, Safiya Fredericks, Denmo Ibrahim, Anthony Fusco, Rami Margron, Lance Gardner and Stacy Ross are excellent in California Shakespeare Theater’s innovative adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing.” (Courtesy Alessandra Mello)

If you’ve been attending theater in the Bay Area for any length of time, you’ve doubtless encountered the work of James Carpenter and Stacy Ross. Two of the region’s finest Shakespearean actors, they’re now playing Beatrice and Benedick in the California Shakespeare Theater’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

No, that wasn’t a mix-up in the order of their names. In an inspired bit of cross-gender casting, Carpenter plays Beatrice, and Ross is Benedick, in this tartly imagined, urgently performed new adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy by Kenneth Lin and Jackson Gay.

With additional text by Lin, and directed by Gay in her Cal Shakes debut, the show – which launches the company’s 25th season, the first under new artistic director Eric Ting – draws remarkable performances from Carpenter and Ross as the resolutely single characters who have to be tricked into admitting they love each other.

Carpenter, playing Beatrice in a demure pantsuit (costumes by Karina Chavarin), suggests a woman who’s accustomed to being overlooked by men. Quiet of voice, prim in her demeanor, Carpenter makes her a character who has learned to blend into the scenery and deploy her razor-sharp wit in understated asides. When the Prince (the excellent Lance Gardner as Don Pedro) expresses interest in her, this Beatrice looks genuinely shocked.

As Benedick, Ross approaches the ideal, bringing the character’s inner doubts and outer swagger to the fore in equal measure. The pivotal scene in which Beatrice and Benedick finally bond in response to Claudio’s (Denmo Ibrahim) false accusation of Hero (Safiya Fredericks) is riveting.

Carpenter and Ross are by no means the production’s only attractions. Anthony Fusco, another accomplished Bay Area Shakespearean, doubles as Leonato and Dogberry, lending gravitas to the former and delivering the latter’s malapropisms with keen comic timing. Fredericks, Gardner, Patrick Alparone and Rami Margron all assume multiple roles.

Cut and streamlined to a brisk one-hour, 40-minute running time (without intermission), the production starts with a wedding, bringing the cast onto Erik Flatmo’s set (littered with bouquets, crates of wine and glasses) as caterers. While the guests party upstairs (sound by Olive Mitra), the weary workers slouch around, grousing in Lin’s rhymed text. This “Much Ado,” it seems, is a tale told by a wedding planner.

Yet Gay’s staging honors Shakespeare’s text better than many “traditional” productions do. “Much Ado” is a comedy, but its darker themes of class and gender shine through splendidly here.

Much Ado About Nothing
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes June 19
Tickets: $20 to $72
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org

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