As if Michael Jackson were a Shakespearian Actor in 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Over the past two months I’ve seen three wonderful Shakespeare productions: Shotgun Players' you-don’t-know-who-is-going-to-play-what-role Hamlet, Unnatural Deeds' Macbeth -- a sharp, imaginative, shoestring production that was performed in a West Oakland garage for only five shows -- and now a Much Ado About Nothing from California Shakespeare Theater that burrows with a soft, gentle step into the roughest aspects of love.

Cal Shakes' Much Ado is the first production under new artistic director Eric Ting and is smartly and trickily adapted by writer Kenneth Lin and director Jackson Gay. Their take on Shakespeare's beloved dark comedy is set in a kind of backstage -- behind the scenes at a wedding -- and focuses on the hired help looking to have some fun during the moments they're off duty. There are dishwashers, waiters and waitresses, a foreman, and a vain fop of a wedding singer.

We soon realize that these people have been silent witnesses and participants -- the extras, the modern day spear-carriers -- to the double weddings of Beatrice and Benedick and Claudio and Hero that end Much Ado. While cleaning up during the tail end of the party, these temporary workers start to recount what happened, basically the story of the play, and then just casually start to take on and act out the roles.

The provisional, haphazard quality from which they begin fits the play well. Much Ado starts in a tense lull: Don Pedro and his men have been at war and seek calm and refuge at Leonato’s estate. Shakespeare gives us both the state of leisure and unrest that all the characters are trying to navigate. They understand that they are freer than they’ve been. And yet they’re also scarred, distrustful of any kind of real future, and, by implication, the possibilities of love. This, more than anything, is what the sparring lovers Beatrice and Benedick must overcome: a state of war that continues to infect all those it touches.

Stacy Ross’s Benedick is as strange and magnetic a performance as you are likely to get this year. Dressed as a man, in a tight, striped jacket and floppy hair, she resembles, moves, and behaves like Michael Jackson. People forget that the pop music icon was once considered a can’t-miss movie star -- a stranger, more electric Fred Astaire. I used to imagine him as Lear’s Fool, Ariel, Mercutio, Puck. All the offbeat Shakespeare characters, but never the romantic, leading man.

Yet, Ross, channeling Jackson, is perfect. (I can’t believe that this isn’t intentional; I mean look at her in the above production still.) The precision and sharpness of the actress's movements -- like Jackson’s dancing -- tells us so much about Benedick. When he hides within a batch of flowers, Ross snatches them in one violent grab and then holds still in painful silence. It’s wonderful and silly, and yet we understand that this is a man riven by contradictory impulses that he can neither control nor understand. It’s comic, but also awful and human.

Better yet, after Beatrice’s cousin Hero is brutally set up and abused on her wedding day, there’s Ross’s Benedick, frozen, his body ramrod straight, with one arm unfurled towards the grieving Hero as Beatrice ministers to her. (Jackson makes a similar move in the video for "Smooth Criminal"). It is as if Benedick is saying "I will stay in this pose of care until all is made right." It’s a beautiful performance -- a complex choreography of swoops, dashes, and attempts at stillness. It is everything we might have imagined Jackson bringing to Shakespeare.

Yet, Much Ado is a play of balance. Everything happens in doubles: two couples, two plots, two cousins, two brothers named Don. There's even a false double that ends all the dissembling in happy accord. So our Beatrice must be as great as our Benedick, and longtime Bay Area actor James Carpenter delivers a performance equal to, and, most importantly, in a different key than Ross’s. His is more grand Hollywood, a let-them-come-to-me Greta Garbo, all allure and presence.

Ross prances around the stage, but Carpenter barely moves. Ross’s line readings are poly-rhythmic, where Carpenter’s are crisp and measured. This is a careful Beatrice, wary and alert to the dangers of the world and her own heart. Her famous wit is in full force, and yet Carpenter makes us see how necessary that wit is to her survival. It’s not a character trait, but rather a canny response to a complex and uncertain situation. Carpenter makes us understand that his Beatrice is stunning and cool not because she wants to be, but because she has to be.

Much Ado might be about slight misunderstandings, but Ross and Carpenter show us how savage those slight misunderstandings can be. Loving someone is always a leap of faith, especially in a world of constant misperceptions. By watching them have to act -- Ross is not a man and Carpenter is not only not a woman but also at least 30 years older than the character he plays -- they plunge us into every duplicity that Much Ado has to offer.

California Shakespeare Theater's ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ runs through June 19 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. For tickets and information click here.