by Michele Payne
Photos by Emily McKnight
Iowa City – Iowa City Community Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It is a romp: playful, energetic, even frisky. You should go see it. Oh, sure, it wasn’t perfect. But yesterday was a grey and melancholy day for me, and the two and a half hours I spent last evening in the Forest of Arden with Rosalind, Orlando, Celia, Arthur, Touchstone and Audrey were a wonderful antidote.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. An escape from the city – seat of treachery and abusive political power – to the peace and generosity of the country is at the heart of this play. The plot is quite complicated, but to focus on the main story, a young noblewoman, Rosalind, dresses as a man and escapes to the forest, where she naturally finds her true love, but he doesn’t recognize her because of her disguise. Comedic hi-jinks follow as many other characters pair off before the whole thing ends with multiple weddings.
Shakespeare’s comedies (the ones, at least, with a modern comedic sensibility) have huge casts. Characters exit and enter willy-nilly, change their identities, can be at some points true rubes and at others true philosophers. In As You Like It, it’s a shepherdess, who quotes (and properly attributes) Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander: “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?”
Jen Brown, directing her first full-length play, showed a deft understanding of comedy and the impact good staging can have on the audience, both by giving them something entertaining to look at and helping them understand what’s going on. Two examples: In the opening scene, our hero Orlando decides he’ll take on Charles, the Court wrestler. (I know: Court wrestler? But that’s what Shakespeare wrote and he should know.)
Charles has been given permission by Orlando’s despicable older brother to treat him as harshly as he likes, even to the point of death. Brown brought in someone from the Iowa wrestling program to coach the actors, and Orlando’s victory, right at the audience’s feet, felt good and honest and real.
Another deft example of effective staging came later in the play, as Rosalind, Orlando, Silvius and Phebe light-heartedly try to sort out who loves whom. The scene becomes an Elizabethan dance where men and women meet and split and circle, only to meet up again.
Many of the best moments in the play came from watching the interplay between two characters. Hannah Adamson and Erin Mills found true joy in their friendship as Rosalind and Celia. John Stang played Orlando with a sweetness that made his interactions with his old servant Adam (Chuck Dufano) truly heartwarming. And the sexy, hilarious courtship of Touchstone and Audrey was one of the highlights of the evening.
We expect physical comedy from Touchstone (he’s a clown, after all), and Jo Jo Johnson was terrific and audacious, reminding me every so often of the great Marty Feldman. AnnaMarie Ward’s Audrey was a perfect foil for Touchstone, defending her virtue whilst tucking in her cleavage and grinning a saucy grin.
One favorite moment came as Chuck Dufano’s Adam reached his breaking point on his journey with Orlando into the Forest of Arden. He drops to his knees – “Dear Master, I can go no further. Here I lie down” – and he begins laboriously inching his hands out in front of him – “and measure out my grave.”
Another very nice moment: Josh Sazon’s “All the world’s a stage” speech as Melancholy Jaques. The cluster of grapes in his hand served him well to illustrate some of the seven ages, and his delivery of the “Last scene of all,/ That ends this strange eventful history,/ Is second childishness and mere oblivion,/ sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” was chilling and spot on.
By focusing on individual moments I don’t mean to suggest that the performance lacked cohesion. The production is tight and moves right along. We always know where we are, no mean feat. Scene changes are efficient and often entertaining in their own right, as the actors wheel the city walls and forest trees around, often staying in character or seeming to invent a new character for themselves. I’m thinking of Justin Lane, a very big man, walking all the way across the stage with a very big bench under one arm, perusing a very little book.
It wasn’t a perfect performance. Brown acknowledges in her director’s notes that Shakespeare always delivers amazing writing, but that fantastic Shakespearean language can be difficult. I noticed this most when a character had a long prose speech to deliver. There was often a rush to get through it, a softening of the voice, and a sameness to the delivery where the emphasis of certain key words would have made the speech more understandable.
The casting of actors in multiple roles also sometimes created problems. Ace Ava as the shepherd Corin was genuine and funny and I was always delighted to see him when he came back on stage. But Ace Ava as Duke Frederick was simply loud when I would have liked him to assert his authority in a more scary, controlled way.
If I’d been responsible for painting the set pieces, I would have left the city side bleak and gray, but made the trees brighter, more fanciful, more cheerful to reflect the joyous exuberance of all the characters in the Forest.
Brown chose to have actors on stage before the start of the play, interacting with each other and the audience. While I like the idea, the execution was occasionally off-putting by introducing modern notes including business cards and modern English, not in keeping with the traditional staging that followed. Welcome, though, were the times the characters pulled audience members onto the stage to dance, and the way pseudo set pieces made their way into the lobby.
Go see this production. You’ll be cheered and heartened.