BWW Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at Shake On The Lake
Having taught British literature for over a quarter of a century, I have become painfully aware of two initial student misconceptions about Shakespeare and his literature: that he wrote in Old English and that his writings are academic, elitist, archaic and dull. The first false assertion can be dispelled through education. "Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!" is really Old English. By comparison one can see that Shakespeare wrote in Modern English. The second erroneous belief can only be dismissed through experience, and schools have been struggling to provide that experience for over 400 years. Unfortunately classrooms aren't famous for being the antidote needed to overcome chronic symptoms of archaic dullness (no offense to my former colleagues intended.) Any reader of BWW knows that live theater is that healing potion, but good live theater like modern healthcare is inaccessible to many people.
As stated on their website, Shake on the Lake is a professional theatre company in their tenth season that specializes in performances to underserved rural communities. They are currently touring Western New York State with a lively production of As You Like It. I had the good fortune to stumble upon the second night of their tour. It was scheduled to be enacted outdoors on the grounds of The Morgan-Manning House in Brockport. This plan was interrupted by torrential rain just prior to the staging. With true theatrical chutzpah and the mantra that "the show must go on," these actors, soaked to the bone, were moved indoors into the Tower Building on the campus of SUNY Brockport. To paraphrase Jacques, they were sans set, sans sound equipment, sans special effects, sans everything. In the modern parlance, it was truly an unplugged performance. But what better way to experience Shakespeare in its purest form than from a traveling band of actors armed with nothing but their skill and improvisational wit.
Shake on the Lake did not disappoint. The show was introduced by a series of modern rock songs accompanied by acoustic guitars, a trumpet, a ukulele and an accordion. The lyrics acted as a dumb show to highlight the theme of the evening--love. This joyous company may have been wet but their enthusiasm was not dampened. From the outset of the play it was obvious that their goal was to create an As You Like It that was relatable to a modern audience. The cast took liberties with the text, often interspersing it with modern colloquialisms and pop song references. The acting was impressively physical, spirited and at times appropriately bawdy. Without the set, the audience could see the actors who were outside the circle of the scene enjoy their comrades performance as much as we did. Their joy and laughter intensified our own. It was clear that this was a company that both worked and played together.
Josh Rice, the founder of the troupe, set the tone early with his WWE inspired characterization of Charles the court wrestler. Part Hulk Hogan and part Randy Flair, he mercilessly taunted Ladarius Jamerson's Orlando from the imaginary top rope, flexed and performed diving elbow drops. Jamerson sputtered and feigned being stunned. The audience was drawn in by the familiar motifs of modern wrestling. Shakespeare became relevant through this and similar parallels throughout the show. High-test energy fueled the motor of the plot.
The entire cast raced through the show playing multiple characters. Ladarius Jamerson's Orlando was confident, handsome and crazily love-struck while his country bumpkin William "ah shucked" his way through a love scene with cross- dressing Keith Harper's Audrey. Madeline Dauer's Rosalind at first blushed wide-eyed with love but later, when dressed as the boy Ganymede, beamed delighting in impish pranks as she tormented her dear Orlando. Sharon Combs as Celia gave a particularly fine supporting performance as cousin and companion to Rosalind. Josh Marcks' versatility was displayed as he portrayed the serene Duke Senior, the fiery Duke Frederick and the emo shepherd Silvius.
As a scholar and lover of Shakespeare, I missed the flights of language that enrich characterization and soar with emotion. But as an improv teacher, I delighted in the spontaneity and creative high jinx that engaged the audience. Shake on the Lake's As You Like It is a perfect introduction to the genius of Shakespeare. It's fast, funny and first-rate. This modern take is for everyone. If you go, you won't see the exact production I saw because with luck and fair weather you will see it in it's fully produced glory, but I can assure you it will be a great evening of entertainment!
As You Like It runs until August 11th. For more information regarding the date, time and location of the upcoming productions click here.