BWW Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at Brave Spirits Theatre
"I like this place, and willingly could waste my time in it." This line, spoken by Celia (Rebecca Speas) early in As You Like It, is an appropriate way to describe the vibe of Brave Spirits Theatre's new production of Shakespeare's comedy, directed by Jessica Aimone. It's an amiable production of one of the most laid-back plays in the canon, led by a charismatic cast whose chief concern is our entertainment. On that front, it's a success.
After a bit of fast-moving familial drama - including an elaborately choreographed wrestling match - the play begins properly with its main characters drifting towards the forest of Arden, where they forget their troubles and walk around talking about love, falling in love, helping others fall in love, et cetera. There's some antics, of course, but it's in Arden that As You Like It becomes its true self, a play that asks its characters and audiences to set aside conflict in favor of - as aptly put in the director's note - "grace, beauty, and [the] potential of humanity."
The cast, a strong combination of Brave Spirits stalwarts and newcomers, display strong comfortability and control over Shakespeare's language. They're led by Farrell Parker as Rosalind and Ben Peter as Orlando, a pair of hopeful lovers. Rosalind, disguised as a young man named Ganymede, uses her temporary new persona as a way to explore the world with fresh eyes, and Parker helps us see it that way, too. Her patient yet passionate Rosalind, logically deconstructing her own overflowing love, is countered brilliantly by Peter's optimistic Orlando pursuing every whim without a second thought. They experience their love differently, and together they approach something that feels true to love's confusing path.
They're supported by a terrific ensemble. Rosalind's cousin Celia, played by Rebecca Speas, is somehow both sheltered and hedonistic and a perfect emblem of this world of discovery. Jared Graham as Touchstone, a jester coerced into adventure by Rosalind and Celia, is a solid traditional fool, but he ups his game entirely once his beau Audrey appears, played by Mackenzie Larsen. It would be a crime - also, impossible - to try and even begin to describe what Larsen does in this small role, but it's worth every bit of the ticket price, and it's a shame to see Larsen in only one speaking role in a play with so much possible doubling.
Charlie Cook takes on four parts, and in each of them he makes physical and vocal choices that suggest an entire existence outside the action of the play. All are frequently funny and loaded with more depth than they're usually afforded in productions of this play. Anderson Wells shines in a trio of roles, but I am biased in my love for his Le Beau, wherein he delivers my favorite line in the play: "Hereafter, in a better world than this, I shall desire more love and knowledge of you." Ian Blackwell Rogers plays two roles, the villainous Duke Frederick and his more affable brother Duke Senior. We spend far more time with the latter, but Rogers, like Cook and Wells, places a lot of care into distinguishing the two.
Brendan Edward Kennedy is Orlando's snidely brother Oliver, and though we don't spend much time with him, he makes a lasting impression in his early scenes, and when he shows up over an hour later a changed man, his story of growth - one of the oddest moments in the play - ends up carrying real pathos. Megan Reichelt is Charles the Wrestler and Duke Senior's attendant Jaques, both women in this production. Jaques feels a bit sidelined, though Reichelt is delightfully terrifying in her wrestling scene with Peter's Orlando. (Casey Kaleba, fight director, has created a match that's pretty thrilling to watch, if overlong.)
Amber Gibson's Phoebe is a shepherdess attempting to halt the advances made by Daniel G. Westbrook's sadsack shepherd Silvius. Gibson and Westbrook have a clear connection to the text, though these scenes end up being more muted, and some of Shakespeare's biggest laughs in the show are lost. That said, Gibson rises above most portrayals of Phoebe that depict her as a cruel shrew. Her first speech to Silvius, in which she tells him she isn't responsible for his happiness, ends up being one of the highlights of the show.
Aimone keeps her actors moving at a deliberate pace that fits well with Shakespeare's text. Her most dynamic choice becomes apparent the second the play begins. As noted by dramaturg Emily MacLeod, As You Like It uses several of Shakespeare's original practices, most notably the use of universal lighting. The actors can and will see you, speak to you, and even borrow your programs and snacks. And, in one of this production's many little pleasures, the actors watch the show with you. It's not uncommon to witness a sharp, funny moment onstage, only to then see Ian Blackwell Rogers nodding at you as if to say "just wait." This element, along with the gorgeous, simple set - the design goes uncredited - bring the audience right into Arden with little effort. Though we are enveloped in light the entire show, Jason Aufdem-Brinke's lighting design goes a long way towards setting the mood, as well as helping us adjust to scene changes. Adalia Tonneyck's costumes deftly explain characters' stations before they even speak, and are quite practical in the case of a few quick changes.
The time doesn't always fly by. As You Like It is filled with songs, and Aimone has written original lyrics to replace Shakespeare's, with music by Zach Roberts. These songs unfortunately become a hindrance, and while attempts are made to delve deeper into some characters' psyches, they don't do the work nearly as well as Shakespeare or the actors. It also becomes difficult to tell why some characters have songs and some do not, and the two and a half hour runtime starts to lack justification after the fourth or fifth number. There are two songs that work - one a forest ballad sung by Anderson Wells, the other a hysterical solo by Mackenzie Larsen's Audrey.
Audiences familiar with As You Like It won't find much in the way of unexplored terrain by Brave Spirits' production, but it's an exuberant affair, often heartwarming, and it's anchored by some of the best Shakespearean actors in the DC area. Whether you've never seen it before or loved the play for years, it's be impossible to resist the charms of As You Like It.
Running Time: 2 and a half hours with one 10-minute intermission.
Brave Spirits' As You Like It runs through April 27th, 2019. Performances are located at the Lab at Convergence at 1819 N. Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302. For tickets, visit www.bravespiritstheatre.com.