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When you're staging Shakespeare, it's all in the interpretation. It's hard to make plays that spoke to their audiences four hundred years ago reach for the souls of a modern-day audience. The result is that every production we see, traditionalist or not, is filtered through at least one interpretative and creative lens. The question is how well the interpretation works.
The production of As You Like It at the Agassiz is one splendid example of a working marriage between the Renaissance text and a modern aesthetic. The Arcadia of Shakespeare's Forest of Arden is shot through with visual evocations of the Victorian period, from the nineteenth-century images hanging quietly among the trees to allusions to Alice in Wonderland. The Victorian icons have a resonance which seems strangely suited to the fantastic atmosphere of the comedy, and the bowler hats, black umbrellas, high collars and spats worn by some inhabitants of the green, fruitful forest lend the entire stage a delightfully rich, dream-like and slightly hallucinatory atmosphere.
Make no mistake, however: this is the classic Shakespearean text, delivered with Elizabethan gusto. As You Like It, remarkable even among Shakespeare's comedies for its sheer number of characters, is staged by such intelligent and versatile actors that even the minor roles shine. Nora Zimmett '00 gives a powerful and richly textured performance as Rosalind, the heroine around whom the rest of the play revolves. It's a tremendous responsibility which she handles with grace, strength and wit. Ryan McKittrick, as her romantic counterpart Orlando, gives his character all the charming hot-headedness and lovelorn sincerity required by the role, and the chemistry between him and Zimmett is appropriately erotic. And Samara Levenstein gives a notable performance as the alternately sweet and sharp-edged Celia, Rosalind's cousin and companion throughout the play.
But it's the brilliant performances of the ensemble cast that ultimately makes this show such a complete and unique success. Lorenzo Moreno '00, as the "wise fool" Touchstone, handles the rapid-fire patter and the physical burlesque of the Renaissance clown with an ease, energy and good humor that's little short of astonishing. In the great Shakespearean tradition, Erik Amblad '98 dashes in and out of three different roles and is scenestealingly hilarious in the tiny part of the bumpkin rustic, Corin. Chuck O'Toole '97 plays Orlando's usurping elder brother Oliver as a marvelously villainous fop in the first act, although his performance wavers toward the end of the play with his character's transformation into a repentant lover. And Scott Brown '98 and Lucia Brawley '99 are delightful in their interpretations of the hapless shepherd Silvius and the arrogant shepherdess-turned-funk-queen Phebe--a pair given little depth in the text, but lent tremendous personality in this production.
But if a single performer among this excellent cast can be said to steal the show, it is the phenomenal Sarah Burt-Kinderman '97, playing Jacques, the "melancholic" clown. A character who usually lurks in the corners of Shakespeare's text, Jacques has been slightly recast by Zayas into an interestingly post-modern role of the isolated intellectual. His sardonic commentary and constant observations on the rest of the play draw the line between the fantastic and the real, bringing the viewpoint of a modern, cynical viewer into the play. In his battered black suit, derby hat and worn-out umbrella, Burt-Kinderman's Jacques seems a cross between Charlie Chaplin and one of Beckett's existentially confused wanderers from Waiting for Godot. Her razor-sharp portrayal electrifies the play. Deftly handling Jacques's bitter one-liners, she also does an unusually effective job with the play's famous "Seven Ages of Man" monologue.
The set design by Helen Shaw '98 and the soundtrack coordination of Amar Hamoudi '95 also deserve commendation. The (literaly) luminous backdrop allows for a series of visually rich, stunning scenes, taking advantage of the small space to create a flow of constantly changing motion and color. The stage frequently transforms into tableaux which are tiny gems of visual creativity: The visual imagination of the director seems to have been working overtime, and the results often veer brilliantly into Magritte country.
The production also makes excellent use of background music--evoking besottedness, melancholy, celebration, or uneasy anticipation. The soundtrack ranges from Haydn to Tom Waits to the Pet Shop Boys.
The atmosphere created by the unification of images, sounds and concepts from different time periods generates a world both dreamlike and rich on many layers. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia--a formidable achievement indeed.
The flaws are few and far between. The players' diction, while hardly in classical Shakespearean style, is usually fresh and easily comprehensible, although some actors do occasionally garble lines by speaking too quickly. If the actors feel pressured to rush through their lines, the play might have benefited from further cutting.
The echo-chamber effect which sometimes cuts in during a monologue becomes tedious very fast, and there are also a couple of thematic loose ends. For example, an early Lewis Carroll reference is not picked up again, and one may also wonder why Phebe seems to have turned into a refugee from Rent. But such glitches can easily enough be corrected by the players. If there are a few elements of Zayas's vision that don't strike a chord in the viewer, they're easily made up for by the overpowering richness of that vision as a whole.
Zayas and company have designed for you a marvelous dream: Bring a willingness both to think about your entertainment and to be thoroughly and uniquely entertained. Lusty and lyrical, this is solid student Shakespeare, beautifully presented and joyously performed. So hie thee to the Agassiz to see this spectacular piece of Shakespeare's dream country before it disappears forever.
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