Shakespeare goes Roaring Twenties in inventive ‘As You Like It’


by Neil Coker,
Democrat Staff Writer

 

Rosalind (Laura W. Johnson) enjoys playing
with Touchstone (Devon Glover) and her cousin Celia
(Jessica Lowe-Minor) in “As You Like It.”
(Photo: Bob O’Lary)

Whenever a train goes by, expect the cast of “As You Like It” to put the “shake” in “Shakespeare” and break out into a rousing Charleston. The comedy, performed outdoors at Cascades Park, is the centerpiece of this year’s Southern Shakespeare Festival. This time, the company swaps Renaissance-era France for Prohibition-era Chicago.

“As You Like It” ranks among the crowdpleasers written by the Bard. It’s rife with physical humor, dirty wordplay (blame Bill S. for inventing the word “slut”), and some of his most famous lines (more on that later). But until now, I don’t know that it’s been accompanied by a jazz band.

In answering whether the 1920s facelift works for the material or serves nothing but gimmickry, the added musical flourish, lavish costumes, and decadent setting seems to point to the former. If it only does one thing, this update gives the work smashing new life.

Like other Shakespearean plays, even the comedies have tragic openings. Duke Frederick takes over the land and banishes his brother Duke Senior (both played by Terry Wells) and all his bannermen. The banished Duke’s daughter Rosalind (Laura Johnson) gets a pass due to being the best friend of his daughter Celia (Jessica Lowe-Minor). Until she doesn’t.

She too is banished, and chooses exile in the Forest of Arden where she’s joined by Celia and the court fool Touchstone (‘Sonnet Man’ Devon Glover). And at this point, it wouldn’t be Shakespeare if she didn’t don male apparel and take on a new identity.

Meanwhile, a young hunk named Orlando (Anthony Coons) has fallen in love with Rosalind at first sight but has bigger immediate worries as he’s ejected from the family estate by his brother Oliver (Kevin Carr.) He finds himself in Arden as well and carves bad poetry about Rosalind into the trees.

The rest of the exiled court are revealed to be vibrant souls. Among these are the gloomy observer Jacques (played by Philip Croton, who brilliantly delivers the “All the world’s a stage” monologue, among others) and musician Amiens (Jake Armstrong, who also brilliantly sings a tune about what it’s like “Under the Greenwood Tree”). The Bard’s words, set to music, create a scene where the two share a duet together. It’s charming.

Then there are the country folk who live in the forest. There’s Corin (Duncan Hoehn), more or less an indentured servant whom Rosalind and Celia first encounter. There’s also the shepherdess Phoebe (an adorable Robin Jackson) and Silvius (Josh Weinstein), who is in love with her. But Phoebe wants “Ganymede,” Rosalind in disguise.

Not to be out-coupled, we also meet another shepherdess, Audrey (Miranda Wonder) who wins the heart of Touchstone following a conversation on the merits of her “sluttishness.” Touchstone hastily runs off with her to marry.

When Rosalind encounters Orlando, aware of his love poems and in love with him the same, she, as “Ganymede,” attempts to counsel him on how to rid himself of said love, while goading him to act out his feelings for Rosalind with “him” in her place. You’d think an honest, un-protracted explanation could have expedited the process for her, but then if things were reasonable it wouldn’t be Shakespeare, would it?

So goes most of the play, and such complaints, like the roundabout decisions made by its characters for the plot’s convenience, may be why it’s been the recipient of literary criticism and subject of much discussion historically. But what’s clear from its past, countlessly revived for the stage and adapted for the screen, is that the general public loves them some “As You Like It.”

The costumes and scenery may generate a compelling image, but with Shakespeare, none of that matters if the acting isn’t good. Fortunately, this may be the most well-acted run that the revived Shakespeare festival has had yet.

Its leads are solid; reliable. Coons as Orlando has an impassioned intensity in his love for Rosalind and Johnson, as Rosalind, has such a strong grip on her role that she effectively drives the show. Her closing epilogue is among the finest I’ve ever seen. From what I saw at Wednesday night’s dress rehearsal, the ensemble as a whole excelled in alternating between the meter typical to Shakespeare’s writing and the large of amount of prose atypical to it.

Director Lanny Thomas’ production aims for excellence. With only a few kinks left to work out after Wednesday, the festival’s focus appears on its way to achieving that. A well-suited cast, musical backbone, and bold repurposed setting promise a weekend of Shakespeare like it’s never been seen before.

The show is only the festival’s main course. There will also be performances from other groups like Theater with a Mission, Charleston dance lessons for Tallahassee Democrat Insiders (have to make the most of those train breaks), food trucks, a beer garden, children’s area, and more. Check the Southern Shakespeare group’s website for more details.

Even with the 1920s makeover, performing “As You Like It” outdoors creates a portal to a time when that was the standard for Shakespearean theater. The Capital City Amphitheater may not be the Globe, but it’s a serviceable substitute as far as tradition is concerned. What may be the Southern Shakespeare Festival’s crowning achievement is that it presents this experience to the public completely free of charge. For live theater, it’s a price that can’t be beaten. Bring bug spray.


article courtesy of Tallahassee Democrat: http://www.tallahassee.com/story/entertainment/2017/05/11/shakespeare-goes-roaring-twenties-inventive-you-like/101551470/