BWW Reviews: Alley Theatre's AS YOU LIKE IT Commands The Stage
Close, though not quite kissing, cousins, Rosalind and Celia, are on the run. Celia's despotic father, Duke Frederick, has already exiled her uncle (and Rosalind's father), Duke Ferdinand. Now, in a fit of more irrationality and insecurity, Duke Frederick exiles Rosalind. Like father, like daughter. Unable to see her cousin so cruelly cast out, Celia provides Rosalind company in her sojourn to the Forest of Arden where, just coincidentally, Duke Ferdinand and his loyal court reside.
But before Rosalind is unfairly cast from the court, she happens upon the gentle and flakey youth Orlando. One look and they're both in love. He too, after a disagreement with his brother Oliver, a member of Duke Frederick's court, finds himself in the Forest of Arden.
And, oh yeah, there's crossdressing and general romantic comedy misunderstandings.
No one weaves a tangled web of a plot into a $4,000 designer play like Shakespeare. And the Alley Theatre wears that play well. It's been hanging out with the Kardashian-Wests lately and really getting into the fashion life. So AS YOU LIKE IT is a joy to write about. Sometimes, the stars just align.
Gregory Boyd's direction belies a master illusionist. That's not surprising for the Alley. Lifting stages and actors popping in and out of trap doors is par for the course. But did you also know that Boyd is a master mixologist? His transitions are bold yet seamless. He mixes Elizabethan characters and costumes with cartoon sound effects, 50s and 60s asylum aesthetics, and references to the fascist dictators of the 30s and 40s into a modern, timeless telling of AS YOU LIKE IT. Amazingly, Boyd mixes and matches time periods without creating a disjointed production. Moreover, he coaches great performances. The characters, their desires and their fears are clearly conveyed by the performers whether in prose or verse. No annotations needed for this production.
Boyd and Scenic Designer Kevin Rigdon make a great team. Watch out for the sign bearing the name Rosalind. The sign is an intricate collage of paper, magazine clippings, and love notes that work together to great effect. It's beautiful set design that is meaningful and helps tell the story. This production has a sense of fullness and bounty, but it's clean not wasteful.
Similarly, Boyd and Costume Designer Tricia Barsamian are a fruitful collaboration. Her designs play with warm and cold colors. They are not only a feast for the eyes. They're nourishment.
Elizabeth Bunch is our Rosalind. As the play begins, there is very little for the ingenue to do. Likewise for leading man Chris Hutchinson as Orlando. It's hard for these two archetypes to stand out when they're compared to such characters. However, once the lovebirds are forced into the forest without the confines and strictures of court, the awkwardness begins, and it is delightful.
Bunch's breathless pining and "Does he like me? Probably not, but do you think he likes me?" conversations with Emily Trask's Celia ring true. This is partly because Shakespeare is Shakespeare. The writing is terrific. It never goes out of style because love never goes out of style. Those born in the 80s and 90s are not special little snowflakes. Men have always written love letters while avoiding commitment, and women have always hurled themselves at those men with as much force as possible while trying to maintain an appearance of decorum. And the opposite. And sometimes the same. But this is also owing to Bunch's boyish charm when she is Ganymede.
That said, the performances are not perfect. During the scenes at court, both Bunch and Hutchinson's performances lack the level of meaning and the nuance in the words that they possess once they relocate to the forest.
I can't rave enough about Emily Trask (Celia) or her comedic timing and delivery and her ability to avoid all of the pitfalls of a classically-trained actor entering the world of Shakespeare. Her scenes with Bunch overflowed with a sisterly bond. She elevated Celia from minor character to major. She had less stage time and much less to say, but the quality of her performance made her loom larger on stage and even larger in my mind once the play ended.
Todd Waite plays double duty as Duke Frederick/Duke Ferdinand, and he succeeds at distinguishing the two characters. First, there is quite a bit of bodywork and motion memory he has to deploy in his performances. Plus, he is playing two opposites. One character is good, kind, and truthful. The other maniacal, paranoid, and oppressive. And finally, to complicate matters even more, the opposites are in different acting styles - one realistic, one very much so exaggerated. He does both wonderfully.
James Black shines (or lurks in the shadows) as the moody, pensive Jacques. His biting back and forth with Hutchinson's Orlando is a highlight - lowlight? dark-light? - of the play.
David Rainey as Duke Frederick's wrestler provides one of my most treasured moments. His entrance bears all the markings of Wrestlemania. I wasn't sure if I was watching the mild-mannered actor or Shawn Michaels. As I witnessed his magnificence, I wondered if I could possibly get some bluish white lighting and generic rock music. And that's a good thing.
If you've chosen to attend, you're in for a treat. Totus Mundus Agit Histrionem. The Alley Theatre has conquered the world with this production.
ALLEY THEATRE @ UH
The Wortham Theatre is located just off Cullen Boulevard on UH's main campus inside the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts building (also called building 507 on a UH campus map), which also houses the UH School of Theatre & Dance. Free designated parking for Alley patrons will be actively monitored and patrolled by campus security for all performances and is located at campus entrance 16 off Cullen Boulevard, just across the street from the theatre building. The best address to use for online maps and directions to the UH theatre is 4116 Elgin, Houston TX 77004.