Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at Shakespeare Theatre Company

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of As You Like It has extended its run through January 7th.

By: Dec. 09, 2023
Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at Shakespeare Theatre Company

Shakespeare’s As You Like It is an immensely quotable play. From Rosalind’s “No sooner met but they looked” speech to Orlando’s cutting “I do desire we may be better strangers,” to ruminations on foolishness and love, many of the quotes are well-known to a point it felt almost obligatory to reference perhaps the most famous here: “All the world's a stage; And all the men and women merely players.”

While the quote comes from the melancholiest of characters, the truth is that Shakespeare Theatre Company’s players readily leaned into the “play” aspect of their roles, and it shows in the best ways. STC’s production of As You Like It is fun and playful, and it often feels that the cast, creative team, and audience are having an absolute blast together.

The plot is a model Shakespearean farce (with a few gender flips for the current adaptation): After banishing her sister and claiming her titles and fortune for her own, Dame Frances takes a brief shining to the young upstart Orlando, who bests the champion wrestler after his brother, Oliver, denies him access to their father’s inheritance. However, upon finding out he’s the son of her old rival, Sir Rowland de Boys, she denies his prize. When she discovers that her niece, Rosalind, who she allowed to stay at court for her daughter Celia’s sake, has fallen in love with him, she banishes Rosalind as well; Celia, unwilling to be parted from her beloved cousin, flees with Rosalind and the family fool, Touchstone, to the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind’s mother is rumored to have set up her own counter-court. Orlando and a loyal family servant, Adam, flee to the Forest as well after learning that Oliver has set assassins on him for his defiance. For safety of travel, Rosalind disguises herself as a young man, Ganymede, and purchases a farm, resulting in finding her disguised self the object of another shepherd’s affections while attempting to “coach” the lovelorn Orlando who asks for wooing advice. Everything comes to a head in the forest on the designated wedding day, as many gathered wonder who, exactly, is to be wed.

Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at Shakespeare Theatre Company
The cast of As You Like It

This is actually the second musical version of As You Like It that I’ve covered in DC, but, in a pleasant testament to both the original material and the productions themselves, the shows are radically different and each contain their own enchanting elements. Adaptor and Director Daryl Cloran strips the Elizabethan setting in favor of a seedy capital reminiscent of the mid-century Las Vegas scene, and fittingly updates the dreamy Forest of Arden to a commune worthy of the counterculture movement. The reframing, paired with intervals of the Beatles’ music, brings an entirely new perspective to the beloved play, and elevates the evening to the pure fun every Shakespearean comedy aspires to reach.

One of the strongest elements working in favor of this premise is the production’s own self-awareness (another Shakespearean feature). The play never takes itself too seriously, and leans into just a hint of meta to share a laugh with the audience – the recurring gag of the need to hide because “it’s Shakespeare!” was delightfully executed, as was the use of the Fab Four’s less complex lyrics (such as the repetitive use of “good day, sunshine” as a whole chorus) to represent Orlando’s notably bad poems to Rosalind. Likewise, this awareness spread to the use of the songs in other ways – while there were occasionally full numbers, there were also a solid amount of songs where only a segment or two was applied for emphasis or comedic timing, allowing for the show to be packed with a significant amount of the Beatles’ prolific repertoire without dragging anything out or tiring the audience’s attention. This restraint, as well as opting for a few verbal references rather than a full rendition of some songs, made for a tighter and far more enjoyable performance, and was an incredibly smart decision on the part of Music Director and Supervisor Ben Elliott.

Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at Shakespeare Theatre Company
Jeff Irving, Naomi Ngebulana, Chelsea Rose, and Evan Rein in As You Like It

The cast, comprised of mostly newcomers to the DC theatrical scene, is equally smart and solid. With such a wide range of characters and many of the actors pulling double-duty as either multiple characters or, impressively, as the production’s musicians, it feels like an ensemble piece, though there are a handful of standouts in the leading roles. Jennifer Lines, as both Dame Frances and her banished sister, is the perfect villainess, cool and calculating, and still somehow pulls off her soothing and cheerful counterpart with equal ease – even with her in two roles, I was disappointed her character wasn’t on stage more. Kayvon Khoshkam’s Touchstone, had a magnetic presence, and his comedic timing was excellent, especially when paired with Emma Slipp’s Audrey. Norman Moses’ Adam was heartfelt, and his underrated character drew out great, multilayered performances from those who interacted with him. Andrew Cownden’s hilariously melancholy and crochety Jaques was truly enjoyable, impressively making his famous speech only one of many notable moments – in truth, if I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be one of his other scenes, which somehow surpassed the iconic and beautifully executed monologue. Matthew MacDonald-Bain carried Oliver’s ominousness perfectly, and it was delightful watching his character shift into a reformed man in love with Celia, strikingly portrayed by Naomi Ngebulana as both understated and quietly powerful. As the leading lovers, Orlando and Rosalind, Jeff Irving and Chelsea Rose had great chemistry and harmonized beautifully, but it was really their individual performances that stood out. Their relationships with each character felt multilayered and believable, and it was equally entertaining to watch them take the stage solo as it was to watch them together; Rose also had excellent stage chemistry with Ngebulana, making the cousins’ lifelong sisterly devotion feel sweetly believable.

It helps that the production team behind the scenes is equally as talented as the team on stage. A significant portion of my notes were happily devoted to praising Jonathan Hawley Purvis’ incredible choreography and fight direction – from the wrestling matches to the dance performances, every move on the stage was carefully crafted and it paid off tremendously. The choreography genuinely was a highlight for the whole production, and used Pam Johnson’s beautiful sets to its benefit, particularly the wrestling ring centerstage for Act I. Johnson’s sets were equally impressive in their own right – it’s rare for the audience to react audibly to a set piece, but some of the elements of the design drew out delighted applause when they appeared. Lighting Designer Gerald King perfectly captured the contrasting moods of the capital and the forest with their use of light and color, and Alistair Wallace, Peter McBoyle, and Owen Hutchinson pulled off a perfectly balanced sound design that never allowed any aspect to overpower the others. Carmen Alatorre’s costumes were a vintage-lover’s dream, and looked as though they were transported directly from the era in pristine condition. And, through the whole production, Cloran and Elliott clearly directed the team with precise movements that had the whole production running smoothly and confidently, never caught up in any self-importance or doubting the assuredness of each element.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of As You Like It may not be the best musical I’ve seen - Beatles songs are hard to sing in a musical theater setting! – but it’s certainly one of the most fun. There’s an ease and joy that permeates every aspect of the production that’s undeniable, and the only people who could leave the theatre after that jubilant finale number are people whose melancholy surpasses even Jaques’.

 

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of As You Like It has extended its run through January 7th. Information on tickets, accessibility, and masking are available on the Shakespeare Theatre Company website at the link below. Performance run time is approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

 

All photos are courtesy of Teresa Castracane Photography.




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