Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Review - As You Like It - Classical Actors Ensemble - Always a Pleasant Time In the Forest of Arden - 4 stars

As You Like It is one of my top ten favorite plays of all time.  So I’m either your best audience (if you get it right) or your worst nightmare (if you screw it up). Thus I am happy to report Classical Actors Ensemble is currently doing a lovely job with Shakespeare’s popular romantic comedy over at the Crane Theater space.  It’s nice to be able to steer people to a production of a play I like so they can like it, too.

“They are in the very wrath of love and they will together.  Clubs cannot part them.”

As You Like It nails the idea of love in all its messy, varied glory. Along the way it also toys with notions of identity and gender in amusing and thought-provoking ways.  It has some of Shakespeare’s very best roles for women and all the women in this cast take full advantage of the opportunity.

“Hang there my verse, in witness of my love.”

Rosalind (Samantha V. Papke) is left behind at the royal court when her father Duke Frederick (Randall J. Funk) is sent into exile by his brother Duke Senior (also Funk).  Duke Senior’s daughter Celia (Käri Nielsen), is both Rosalind’s cousin and her best friend.  When Duke Senior later decides to banish Rosalind, Celia decides to run away with her friend, dragging the court jester Touchstone (Joseph Papke) along with them.  Venturing outside of court, Rosalind decides for their protection it’s best to put on the disguise of being a young man instead, calling herself Ganymede.

“Sweet are the uses of adversity.”

They venture out to the Forest of Arden in search of Rosalind’s father Duke Frederick.  Frederick has been accompanied to Arden by loyal attendants (Cody Carlson, James Coward) and a melancholy philosopher named Jacques (Arthur Moss).

“The worst fault you have is to be in love.”
“’Tis a fault I will not change for your best virtue.”

Rosalind and Celia purchase a farming homestead with the help of a local shepherd named Corin (Joe Wiener), and get swept up in the romantic shenanigans surrounding another local young shepherd Silvius (Tom Conry) and his love interest the shepherdess Phoebe (Megan Daoust), who takes a liking to Ganymede instead. 

“Praised be the gods for thy foulness.  Sluttishness may come hereafter.”

Touchstone also gets in on the action by catching the eye of another young shepherdess named Audrey (Emma VanVactor-Lee), who is followed around by yet another lovesick shepherd named William (Carlson again).

“An ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own.”

Also ending up in the Forest of Arden, for various other reasons, are Orlando (Jordon Johnson) and faithful family servant Adam (Alan Tilson), both put out of their home by Orlando’s troublesome older brother Oliver (Taras Wybaczynsky Jr.). 

“I am he that is so love-shaked. I pray you, tell me your remedy.”

Orlando and Rosalind had previously met and become smitten with one another at court.  Now Orlando meets young master Ganymede in the woods, who claims he can cure Orlando of his lovesickness if only Orlando will treat Ganymede as if he were his dream girlfriend Rosalind and try to woo him.  And off we go to the races...

“Chewing the food of sweet and bitter fancy.”

Love triangles, quadrangles, reunions, and transformations abound in the silliest and most delightful of ways, culminating in a four-couple wedding at the end.

“Your gentleness shall force, more than your force move us to gentleness.”

Director Joseph Papke (with assistance from Zach Curtis, Randall J. Funk, and Joe Wiener) and his design team of Dietrich Poppen (set and lights), Marco T. Magno (costumes), and Jordan Johnson (props), put a 1980s gloss on the whole thing, but don’t allow it to get in the way of the story.  It just gives them permission to use colors, music and fashion they might not otherwise have felt they could get away with. (For instance, Orlando's poems are stuck all over the forest on Post-It notes.) Occasionally the era also seeps into the performances - as when Tom Conroy plays the supporting role of Charles the Wrestler in full WWE mode (which is extremely amusing to a degree I was not expecting), or when Papke plays Touchstone as if channeling Christian Slater from the movie Heathers (though thankfully less homicidal).  This last is a schtick that could get old or overdone, but Papke skillfully walks the line that keeps it from tipping over the edge.

“I do not desire you to please me, I desire you to sing.”

The cast as a whole does a commendable job keeping things light and swiftly moving, but there are standouts.  The trio of Samantha Papke as Rosalind, Käri Nielsen as Celia, and Joseph Papke as Touchstone make a great combo of strangers in a strange land leaving the court for the forest.  Randall Funk does wonderfully subtle work distinguishing the two Dukes from one another without turning either one of them into a cartoon (which is trickier than it sounds). 

“Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history...”

Jacques is a role you can overdo or underdo, but Arthur Moss gets it just right.  Jacques seems essential to the story, and is always welcome when he appears.  The Seven Ages Of Man speech (“All the world’s a stage…”) is a heavy lift to make fresh and new after all these years, but Moss does a great job.  Tom Conry doing double duty as both Silvius and Charles is a lot of fun, and he has a couple of great foils in Megan Daoust as Phoebe, and Joe Wiener as Corin (who almost steals the show out from under everyone else with wry wit and offbeat comic timing).

“He that wants money, means and content is without three good friends.”

I have to admit the opening scene between Orlando, Oliver and Adam had me a little worried.  Both the comedy and the brotherly conflict was played so broadly that I thought for a minute “hoo boy, this might be a long night.”  Thankfully all three actors quickly settled into their roles after that, and Oliver’s transformation in the second half especially had me appreciating Wybaczynsky’s acting chops a lot more.  Overall, this As You Like It had a slightly bumpy start but ended up a very pleasant ride.

“Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”

If you’ve never seen As You Like It before, this is a nice way to get introduced to the story.  And if, like me, you’ve seen a lot of As You Like Its, this one will feel like you’re getting reacquainted with an old friend. (Classical Actors Ensemble’s production of As You Like It plays at the Crane Theater through March 5, 2017.)

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

(Pictured (clockwise from left): Samantha Papke, Joseph Papke,
Taras Wybaczynsky Jr, Käri Nielsen, and Jordon Johnson; Photo credit: Lou Bedor III)

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