May 31, 2017 § Leave a Comment
Desdemona Chiang’s smart, contemporary production of As You Like It for CalShakes turns the play inside out, resulting in an extraordinarily moving and revelatory performance.
Chiang takes everything we have come to expect from this pleasant (if usually light-weight) comedy and stands it on its head. From arrival in the auditorium until the curtain call, she finds unexpected depth and intensity by reimagining the setting, the period and the context of the show.
From Green World to Cityscape
The first glimpse of Nina Ball’s evocative set (waiting on the open stage of CalShakes’ beautiful outdoor location in the foothills just beyond Berkeley) is of a gorgeously manicured ivy-covered wall and topiary garden. Reversing the usual trope, this particular “green world” proves to be the unhappy home of the heroine, rather than the expected idyllic wood to which she will later be forced to flee.
When that heroine, Rosalind, is spitefully banished by her malicious uncle, she adopts male disguise and decides to seek her exiled father in the Forest of Arden. Ball’s set revolves and suddenly… we are in a dark, industrial back-alley, where the homeless and dispossessed occupy deserted loading docks stacked high with abandoned shipping containers. It is an apt contemporary analog for the dangerous backwoods of Shakespeare’s era, but unlike any design choice I have previously seen.
On the surface level, this resetting is not an easy fit. The rustics in the “woods” retain their pastoral concerns from deer hunting to sheep herding, while Rosalind (along with the cousin and court jester that agreed to accompany her) speak admiringly of the beauty of the place. The urban jungle we see and the idyllic pastoral vista we hear described are jarringly at odds.
Chiang’s genius lies in slowly seducing us into an even-greater-than-usual suspension of disbelief so that we might look past these surface discordances and discover the play’s deepest core. Her allies in this are her exceptional design team, which in addition to Ball includes costume designer Melissa Torchia, lighting designer Masha Tsimring and sound designer Sharath Patel. They build a world that looks nothing like what is said to be their location, but feels exactly right for a place that is “uncivilized,” and therefore at once dangerous yet freeing.
It is the performance of Jessika D. Williams as Rosalind that pushes the production to truly remarkable heights. In this dangerous new environment, her version of the protagonist has good reason to disguise herself as the male Ganymede, but in Williams’ interpretation what begins as a disguise becomes a discovery. Freed from social constraint, her Rosalind is not so much “performing” the part of a man as she is giving up “performing” the role of a woman. She finds a less-limited, stronger version of herself inside her disguise, and she likes it!
Patrick Russell plays her love interest, Orlando, more conventionally, but he has the courage to play his character as being as attracted to Rosalind’s male alter ego as he is to the “absent” Rosalind. Where he especially shines, however, is in a small scene usually played with a light touch where, penniless and hungry, he demands food at knife-point from a group of homeless people enjoying a communal meal. Rather than make fun of the character’s ineptitude at bluffing, Russell plays the scene with believable, fearful recklessness. Even while bringing sympathy to his character’s desperation, he nonetheless seems genuinely dangerous when holding Jacques hostage.
All the World’s a Stage
The high point of the evening follows quickly upon this moment. As a man who genuinely believed only moments earlier that he was going to die at Orlando’s hand, Jomar Tagatac delivers the famous “seven ages of man” speech with an immediacy and specificity that made it integral to the play and indescribably moving. As the melancholic Jacques, Tagatac is extraordinary all night long, which is little surprise to anyone who saw his unforgettable turn in Life Is a Dream at the same theatre two summers ago. His performance, alone, is worth the price of your ticket.
Company stalwarts James Carpenter as both the usurping and deposed dukes, Patty Gallagher as the unsophisticated country- (or in this case, city-) bumpkin, Audrey, and Warren David Keith as the jester, Touchstone, are uniformly wonderful in their supporting parts. Maryssa Wanlass as Celia, Craig Marker as Oliver, William Hodgson as Silvius and Lisa Hori-Garcia as Pheobe complete the cast, in which there is no weak link.
Ending by Not Ending
The denouement of the play is always a little odd, as the text prominently features a deus ex machina for which we are even more than usually unprepared, but Chiang makes her most deliberate textual changes of the night to this ending by simply eliminating most of it. It is not just her Rosalind who has no desire to change back into a woman. The whole production is most comfortable in the transformative “green world,” and in the end it stays there. After the curtain call, Rosalind’s super hetero-normative epilogue is retained, but so peppered with gender-queer and LGBTQ-friendly asides from the rest of the cast that it ends by meaning exactly the opposite of what it says on paper… thank heaven.
CalShakes is the largest and most sophisticated of the Bay Area’s summer Shakespeare festivals. Its new artistic director, Eric Ting, seems determined to maintain and extend the company’s progressive reputation. In his own directing debut for the company last season, he produced a notable – and notably controversial – Othello, which was pointedly political, via a hyper-Brechtian performance style. As You Like It goes about making its social commentary in a more indirect way, but is every bit as revolutionary. What a great start to the Shakespeare season!
AYLI, viewed on May 27, 2017
California Shakespeare Theatre
Bruns Ampitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theatre Way, Orinda, CA 94563
Tuesdays-Sundays through June 18
July 21, 2015 § Leave a Comment
If this season is the “Year of the Woman” among Bay area Shakespeare Festivals then surely the Livermore Shakespeare Festival, with its female leadership team (Artistic Director Lisa A. Tromovitch, Managing Director Katie Marcel) deserves particular notice. Although they have done nothing to draw particular attention to it, it is worth observing that this summer the festival has an all-female directing staff (Tromovitch and long-time company member Jennifer Le Blanc) and a female-centered repertoire (Sense and Sensibility, As You Like It).
[Note: Managing Director Katie Marcel has pointed out that, although she describes it as a matter of chance and not design, the Board of Directors is also all-female.]
The company is certainly on the move. Tromovitch is the recently elected President of the International Shakespeare Theatre Association and has worked steadily to raise the profile and professionalism of her company over the last five years, including a change for this season to Wente Vinyards as a performance venue.
That new venue provides the key to Tromovitch’s production of As You Like It. Performed on an elevated platform with essentially no scenery and completely surrounded by the audience, the opening night performance had an unforced rapport between the performers and the audience reminiscent of the original conditions for Shakespearean performances. The audience was very close, and never treated as if they were in a separate space. It helped (a lot) that no matter where you sat, audience members were in your direct line of sight across the stage from you. Actors freely passed through the audience for ALL entrances, and those not currently onstage frequently popped into empty seats here and there to watch the show with us.
The resulting casual tone was perfect for just knocking back and enjoying the show, aided by the fact that nearly everyone there was enjoying a glass of wine while they watched. The comfort and ease of the audience interaction was a stark contrast to most Shakespeare, indeed most theatre, that I see where the audience is strongly controlled and subtly intimidated. Here, it was easy to forget that you were watching a four hundred year old play by the-greatest-writer-that-ever-lived. It felt as easy going and enjoyable as a community picnic.
Tromovitch’s take on the show was essentially conservative, with period-ish costumes with a folk flavor designed by Barbara Murray, although she did adopt a very original approach to the dramaturgically troubled ending of the show that surprised and delighted. Her point, however, was not to comment on the show but to fulfill it. Thanks to leading lady Maryssa Wanlass, it was the most emotionally present and engaging AYLI I have seen in some time. Her chemistry with Joseph Salazar (as Orlando) was as fresh and delightful as that of the latest summer rom-com.
A Fiendishly Difficult Favorite
As You Like It is a popular favorite among Shakespeare’s comedies, but is in fact fiendishly difficult to get right. It employs the most music of any Shakespeare play, has a rather unfocused, meandering plot, and typically ends with a literal, and essentially unexplained, deus ex machina in which the god Hymen arrives to set things right – an incident treated so casually that one might assume these characters just interact with gods daily. Things can, and often do, go wrong on all three fronts.
Tromovitch tackles all three of these challenges with a single unifying device – the continual foregrounding of singer Sean Patrick Nill as a kind of metatheatrical narrator. In his hands, often accompanied by other cast members vocally and on instruments, the music is aesthetically engaging while used to tie the story together. When he subsumed the role of Hymen at the play’s end – because he had seemingly been manipulating the story from slightly outside and above the play all evening – it, for once, made sense!
Layers of Plot
The plot is complicated: a dispossessed young man, Orlando, falls in love with the beautiful niece of his corrupt Duke, but is so green and awkward he falls back on clichéd love poems to woo her. The niece, Rosalind, is herself forced to flee from her uncle, who usurped the crown from her father. To protect herself, she goes into exile disguised as a man. They meet again in the woods where both have fled. Orlando does not recognize her through her male disguise, but agrees to some tutoring from her (in her male persona) during which s/he will imitate his beloved for him in a role-playing exercise. At the center of the play is a scene in which (in the original, a boy-actor playing) a woman who is disguised as a man pretends to be a woman (in fact, herself) in order to teach her leading man how to be more genuine and assertive. It is a feat of real skill to keep all these levels clear – especially when the characters get them confused. Tromovitch handled this scene as cleverly as I have ever seen it, with Salazar’s befuddled Orlando becoming increasingly confused about who, exactly, he is falling in love with – the girl or the boy.
Things work out predictably for the couple, and for several other couples that provide variations on the theme in a series of related subplots, but not until the inevitable ending has been delayed as long as possible by the loose diversions found in a summer paradise.
It takes a lot of work to make this all happen but Tromovitch achieves it all with such a light touch that her direction is essentially invisible. Looking back, the engaging evening flew past but felt as indulgent as a chocolate truffle. Strong performances from Patrick Andrew Jones as Orlando’s reforming older brother, William J. Wolak as his faithful servant, and Lindsey Marie Schmeltzer as an overly proud local yokel who falls in love with Rosalind’s male alter ego proved high points.
The cast was not universally strong, which showed particularly in some unconvincing doublings that were neither executed with versatility on their own terms nor justified in their undisguised reuse of actors by a performance convention. Also, as is often the case, some of the more dated farcical parts of the play that have lost their point over time became strained searching for a laugh.
The performance had far more strengths than weaknesses, however. It was a perfect match of venue and play – a light midsummer comedy in an intimate, casual park-like setting. Only the hardest of hearts could possibly resist the swift and glorious ending.
A Company to Watch
Perhaps it is assuming too much to think that the marvelous sympathy between directorial approach and the leading actress’ strengths has anything to do with their shared gender. Maybe it is just Tromovitch’s directorial skills, and not her particular insights into this woman-focused play, that get the tone of this intricate comedy so right. Conceivably, the particularly invitational, friendly environment established in the new venue is the product of good audience engagement research and has nothing to do with the sensibilities of an all-female management team. It is worth contemplating, however, whether more than coincidence is at work. Let’s keep our eye on Livermore Shakespeare Festival to see if women’s leadership continues to provide unique results!
As You Like It
Livermore Shakespeare Festival
Through August 2, 2015
Wente Vinyards, Livermore CA
Seen: July 17, 2015
July 16, 2014 § Leave a Comment
An As You Like It that is, well, pretty darn likeable…
As You Like It at The Marin Shakespeare Company is a perfect example of all that is good about this company, celebrating its 25th season this summer. Still under the direction of its founders, Robert and Lesley Currier, MSC is pretty much a mom-and-pop operation. They run a very lean organization. The Curriers tend to direct most shows themselves and once the repertoire is in performance, can be found cheerfully kibitzing with the audience before the shows from the stage, selling raffle tickets during intermissions, and helping clean the Forest Meadows amphitheatre after most performances. Three times a year they host a popular bus excursion to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. It is clear that a substantial portion of their loyal audience thinks of them as close personal friends.
MSC is anything but a slick, institutional behemoth, preferring their Shakespeare played respectfully and without gimmicks. (As You Like It is set in the Elizabethan period, costumed traditionally, and with the exception of a couple of intentionally anachronistic WWF jokes at the wrestling match, conventionally interpreting – as comedy – the moderately cut script.) The values of this company might be thought “old-fashioned,” but it remains engaged and accessible to its community and the good will between the performers and the audience is palpable.
The single most impressive thing about the production may well be that all tickets for As You Like It are available for a “pay whatever you want” rate. There is outstanding theatre routinely available in the Bay Area, but as a college professor I am keenly aware that much of it is priced well beyond the means of most of my students. As ticket prices at for-profit and non-profit theatres have begun to look more interchangeable, that MSC would apply a sizable anonymous gift directly toward the box office so that literally anyone can see this professional production for free seems less “old-fashioned,” than progressive.
Two Boards and a Passion
Robert Currier’s productions often seem directed only in a loose sense – free of overt directorial concepts, extensive production values, or artificial boosts. That “two-boards-and-a-passion” approach places the responsibility squarely on the actors to convey the (surprisingly complicated) story.
In this case, some terrific performances rise to the occasion. As You Like It is a meandering pastoral in which an exiled young woman named Rosalind (in male disguise, because – Shakespeare) teaches a disinherited and homeless young man – Orlando – what it means to rise above misfortune and commit to love. The high point of the play is a psychologically layered scene in which this young woman, in her disguise as the boy Ganymede, role-plays being a woman. His/her purpose is ostensibly to cure heartbroken Orlando of his infatuation with a lost crush (her, but he doesn’t know that) while in fact she is inflaming the passion of her understandably confused “suitor.”
Rosalind has all the surface theatrics in this scene but it was the endearing, if slightly goofy, Teddy Spencer (playing Orlando in his company debut) that made the scene hum on opening night. His deep confusion about whether his increasing fondness for the boy Ganymede’s illusion was bringing him closer to Rosalind or weaning him away from her was precisely modulated moment-by-moment and touchingly amusing.
The luminous Elena Wright brought a charismatic presence to Rosalind, but relied on the conventions of the play to convey the efficacy of her disguise – as she made no obvious distinctions between her male and female personas beyond masculine and feminine attire. It was Spencer’s responses that guided the audience into suspending their disbelief. (Adding to the humor was company veteran Julian Lopez-Morillas’ turn as the old shepherd Corin, who was never taken in by the ineffective veneer for a second and was perplexed that anyone else was.)
The most theatrically adventurous aspect of the evening was Scott Coopwood’s rapidly alternating doubling of the roles of a banished good old duke and his evil, usurping younger brother. Coopwood wittily played the evil Frederick as a physical quotation of the most famous usurper in the canon, Richard III. It was a shorthand explanation that clarified everything without a bit of exposition.
The most difficult role in the play might well be Orlando’s older brother Oliver, who is unrelentingly evil in the first half of the play while he disinherits his brother, and is miraculously converted to a romantically smitten and reformed lover-at-first-sight in the second half. This change is rarely convincing, but Davern Wright’s all-in commitment to the premise made it narratively compelling precisely because he did not try to make it psychologically realistic.
As is often the case in casts mixing professionals and non-professionals, the supporting cast was uneven. Glenn Havlan’s portrait of the perpetually depressed Jacques was unusually subdued, while most of the country bumpkins were distractingly overplayed – including one who inserted a juggling act for no discernible reason. Luisa Frasconi (who plays Juliet in the next production in the season), however, found the comic gold in the conceited and delusional shepherdess Phebe – who falls in love with Rosalind’s disguised alter ego.
As You Like It is the most musical play in the canon. The uncredited music in this production was enjoyably delivered by Sean Mirkovitch and the company’s interns, conveying the time-wasting pleasure of a summer evening in the forest. It was a fine metaphor for this friendly and leisurely production.
As You Like It
Marin Shakespeare Company
Directed by Robert Currier
July 12, 2014
Tickets: Pay “as you like it”
June 16, 2014 § Leave a Comment
Mark Clark’s production of As You Like It for the Novato Theater Company is powered by an inspired concept: He sets the play in the summer of 1967, opening up all sorts of wonderful insights into Shakespeare’s text.
The second I saw Rosalind (Melissa Claire) in her Ganymede disguise – a Sgt. Pepper-ish “mod” jacket (designed by Janice Deneau) – the play’s gender ambiguity immediately made more sense than in any production I have ever seen. Androgyny was suddenly sexy back then, and Orlando’s inability – or unwillingness? – to see through the disguise was plausible in a way I have never understood it before.
Since the play centers on Rosalind’s disguise, and her role-playing of a woman – while dressed as a man – to teach Orlando lessons about love (in this case, during the “summer of love,”) that alone would be a great conceptual reason to reset the play, but this particular move yielded greater results than just that.
Duke Frederick’s court was Nixonian in both look (dark suits) and temperament (generational hostility against the “kids”) providing texture and context to the usually unexplained hatred of Orlando’s older brother Oliver toward him, and Duke Frederick’s unmotivated banishment of Rosalind.
The transformational escape to the Forest of Arden invoked the whole back-to-nature hippie vibe, where the court-in-exile of Duke Frederick looked like The Mommas and The Poppas on a rehearsal break. Which reminds me, this play contains more music than any Shakespeare play – which is usually excruciating, lasting forever and contributing nothing. In this case, however, both the lyrics and the mood worked perfectly when recast into the mold of counter-culture folk music accompanied only by an onstage acoustic guitar. Richard Steele’s fine singing as Amiens (backed up by a “girl group” of forest courtiers) was the highlight of first act. Far from seeming added on, the songs of the exiles expressing their disenchantment with the establishment and their yearning for connection appeared completely organic.
The execution of Clark’s concept, unfortunately, could not rise to the level of his direction. As often happens in community productions, the cast was not up to the challenge of Shakespeare – too much “ACTING,” and very little inhabiting of the material. With the notable exceptions of Mark Shepard as Corin/Duke Senior and Robert Nelson as Silvius/William/ominous-secret-service-guy-in-Frederick’s-court, the performances were disturbingly uneven. Both Melissa Claire as Rosalind and Skylar Collins as Orlando widely missed the mark in numerous scenes, although they were exceptionally charming in their scenes with each other.
Even in a production that fails to live up to its potential there can be interesting, indeed compelling, ideas and sporadic moments of genuine emotionality. Given a more experienced, or better trained, cast Clark’s concept might make a great evening.
AS YOU LIKE IT
Novato Theater Company
June 15, 2014