This Wide and Universal Theatre

As You Like It (Theatricum Botanicum)userpic=yorick“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; and one man in his time plays many parts…”

These are the words of William Shakespeare (perhaps you’ve heard of him) in his play “As You Like It“. I actually hadn’t realized this play was the source, as I’m not a Shakespeare scholar. In fact, the only play I had ever walked out of was an incredibly bad production of As You Like It (titled As U Lyk It: A California Concoction) at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2006. The production of As You Like It at the Theatricum Botanicum (FB) [which I saw yesterday], on the other hand, redeemed this play for me. It is fun and delightful, well-performed and updated well by not attempting to update it. I had a few minor quibbles, but for the most part I enjoyed this production thoroughly.

If you are not familiar with the basic story of As You Like It, well… neither was I. Luckily, I was able to obtain a one page synopsis of the show and read it beforehand — this helped immensely as it is difficult for those unfamilar with iambic pentameter to pick out everything that is being said. You can find a reasonably good and understandable summary of the plot at No Sweat Shakespeare, the Cliff Notes summary is also good. For the TL;DR generation, the Shakespeare Resource Center has a short and sweet summary. This is one of Shakespeare’s comedies (like Two Gentlemen of Verona), meaning that there is lots of convolutions and humor, and everyone ends up married and happy in the end. In this case you have Rosalind and her close friend Celia disguising themselves and running off to the forest, and her love Orlando not recognizing her and pretending to woo her as if she was her. It may sound silly, but it was the convention of the time and well, umm, just go with it. If you don’t like it, you can always see the musical Omlette.

Shakespeare, unlike perhaps any other playwright, has this unique ability to have his plays translated in time (and not necessarily translated in word) to other places and times. Thus West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet translated to 1950s New York, and The Lion King is a translation of Hamlet. Translations don’t always work, as demonstrated by the 2006 translation of As You Like It to the Mojave Desert. This production does a very light translation of As You Like It to the days of the Civil War. A few words of the original are changed (primarily titles and the name of a character or two), and songs are sometimes replaced with songs from the Civil War era (I know I heard at least one Stephen Foster tune). Otherwise, times are suggested by a uniform here and there. For the most part this works, but in some areas it is quite distracting. For example, the couple of William and Audrey are presented as an interracial couple (something that would never have been permitted — at least out in public — in the South). Duke Senior is presented as the ostensible leader of a Confederate army band; again, the likelihood of mixed races there would have been low. Lastly, many of the costumes were not of the Civil War era — they were Renaissance costumes of the cotton weave and style  as would be found in Elizabethan era peasantwear. I don’t think any of these were fatal flaws; at worst, they were distractions that could have been easily corrected if there was awareness (hell, if William had been black, the suspension of disbelief to have a black couple as part of Senior’s band would have been much easier).  I truly like the notion of translating this to the Civil War timeframe — it is one of the reasons I wanted to see this production. I hope that future productions can figure out the way to explore the translation a bit more fully (even if that might mean doing a bit more adaption of the words).

As You Like It (Theatricum - Cast Photos)The director, Ellen Geer (FB), assisted by Jonathan Blandino/FB, does a great job of making the production work in the specific natural space that is the Theatricum stage.  It is as if the director grew up in that space (oh, right, she did) in the way she utilizes the sides, the hills, and the natural setting to strong effect. She also helped the characters, who do not have much characterization in the Shakespeare original, figure out who they are and what their personalities are like. This appeared to help the actors to truly enjoy performing this play; I have long felt that an actor that enjoys the role translates and unconsciously broadcasts that joy to the audience. The audience, in turn, amplifies the joy and returns it to the actor. This creates a feedback loop that can turn a well known story into a spectacular performance, and I believe the production at Botanicum does just that.

In the main tier positions in this production were Willow Geer (FB) as Rosalind, Elizabeth Tobias (FB) as Celia, and Colin Simon (FB) as Orlando. Geer’s Rosalind/Ganymede was playful and joyous, believable as the character and just fun to watch. Particularly memorable was her playfulness in Act III, Scene II, where Silvius is chasing Pheobe, Phebe is chasing Ganymede (Rosalind), Orlando is chasing Rosalind, and Ganymede (Rosalind) is trying to disavow Phebe without revealing herself to be Rosalind. She had a great interplay with Tobias’ Celia/Aliena, who played the cover role as sister and friend well. Tobias showed the depth of the character more in the transition from the girlish Celia to the girlish (but in a different way) Aliena. Lastly, in this tier, was Simon’s Orlando as the outcast son of the de Boys family. He had the handsomeness and the brawn to be convincing in the wrestling match with Charles, but also had the playfulness to handle the interplay with Ganymede (Rosalind) in a believable fashion.

In the second tier roles were Gerald C. Rivers (FB) as Touchstone, the jester who accompanies Rosalind and Celia in their trek to the forest; Melora Marshall (FB) as Jaques, the melancholy officer loyal to General Senior (Duke Senior), and Earnestine Phillips (FB) as Aida, the faithful servant to Orlando.  River’s Touchstone was an interesting jester, who came into his own after the intermission in his interactions with Audrey. He also had some of the best commentary on lying and observations of people, and was in general quite fun to watch. Marshall’s Jaques (doing a common repertory gender-bending) got some of the more fun observational speeches; he interacted well with both General Senior as well as with Simon’s Orlando. Phillips’ Aida represented one of the more interesting character transformations in the story. Orlando’s traditional manservant, Adam, was transformed into a Mammy-ish characterization who accompanied Orlando. It wasn’t a Mammy characterization, and it wasn’t quite the expected slave portrayal due to independence and the relationship with Orlando, but it provided enough evocation through implication to work well. Whatever the intent, Phillips played it well.

In terms of the the third tier and supporting roles, there are a few worthy of special note. Cameron Rose (FB)’s Silvius and Christine Breihan (FB)’s Phebe had an interesting interplay. Rose (normally playing William) had an interesting look as Silvius and handled the apparent love for Phebe well; Phebe, in turn, had a wonderful puppy attraction to Ganymede (Rosalind) that worked well. Crystal Clark was an especially bubbly and endearing Audrey; her interplay during the opening announcements was extra funny. As I noted earlier, her relationship with William (Clint Blakely/FB at our performance) was unrealistic given the stated setting of the show; other than that, her performance was just fun to watch. Thad Geer‘s General Senior was suitably paternalistic and friendly; I didn’t even realize that it was the same actor playing the evil brother, General Frederick. That said something about how one man was able to do two distinct characters. As Orlando’s foil, Oliver, Frank Weidner (FB) gave a fine Southern portrayal, and had the look of a Southern gentleman. His turnaround at the end worked quite well. Lastly, as Le Beau, Robbie Allen (FB) (moving up from the Ensemble) laid on the French accent a bit thick, but worked well in a humorous fashion. His appearance, however, as part Senior’s band (with the tall stave) seemed out of place. Rounding out the cast in smaller and ensemble roles were: Tate Ammons (FB) [Lord 2, Ensemble]; Olivia Buntaine (FB) [Hesperia, Ensemble]; Steve Fisher (FB) [Charles, the wrestler]; Leo Knudson [Corin]; John Manahan [Sir Oliver Matext]; Jackie Nicole (FB) [Rebel Soldier, Ensemble]; Gray Schierholt/FB [Lord 1, Jaques deBoys]; Caitlin Stegemoller (FB) [Hyman]; Jason Whisman (FB) [Amiens], Clayton Cook (FB) [Ensemble], Vladimir Noel/FB [Ensemble], Michael Zachary Tunstill (FB) [Ensemble], and Michelle Wicklas/FB [Ensemble].

Period music was provided by the actors themselves, and no particular credit is in the program. I do remember that Melora Marshall (FB) was on guitar, and Gerald C. Rivers (FB) did some level of drumming (which isn’t a surprise if you look at his webpage). Additionally, I recall seeing a ukulele, harmonica, accordion/concertina, and a melodica on stage. There is no list of songs.

Turning to the technical side, well, there wasn’t that much of a technical side. The production utilized the Theatricum multilevel stage with no real set pieces, with any additional place established by props (Kristina Teves was Properties Master). Sound Design was by Ian Flanders (FB), but there were no obvious sound effects nor amplification, so I presume this was the period music. Lighting was by Zach Moore/FB, although our production had mostly natural light. The costume designer was Amy Mazzaferro; this area was my other quibble. Whereas some costumes worked well (the Generals, Jaques, Ganymede/Rosalind, Oliver, Orlando), many of the others looked more renaissance than antibellum. Elna Kordijan (FB) was the stage manager, assisted by Karen Osborne (FB).

As You Like It” continues in repertory with four other productions (“To Kill a Mockingbird“, “A Midsummers Night Dream“, “August: Osage County“, and “Green Grow the Lilacs“) at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) throug September 27. It runs at selected Saturdays and Sundays at 3:30 PM. Tickets can be purchased through the Theatricum Website. Although Theatricum does have tickets on Goldstar, there are no current listings for As You Like It. Similarly, there are no discount tickets on LA Stage Tix.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: This weekend’s double header at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) continues this evening with the rescheduled “Green Grow The Lilacs” on Sunday.  The second weekend of August is equally busy, with “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB) on Friday, our summer Mus-ique show on Saturday, and Concerts on the Green in Warner Park (with a Neil Diamond cover band) on Sunday. The third weekend of August is calmer, but only because we moved theatre off the weekend because my wife is driving my daughter’s car back to the bay area. As for me, I might very well go back to see the revised “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB) — they are returning to have live music and I expect that will make a significant difference. The third week of August may see us back at REP East (FB) for their “secret seventh show”, which has been revealed to be “A Company of Wayward Saints“. After that we’ll need a vacation … but then again we might squeeze in Evita at the Maui Cultural Center (FB) the last weekend of August. September right now is mostly open, with the only ticketed show being “The Diviners” at REP East (FB) and a hold-the-date for “First Date” at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). October will bring another Fringe Festival: the NoHo Fringe Festival (FB). October also has the following as ticketed or hold-the-dates: CSUN’s Urinetown (end of October – 10/30 or 11/1);  “The Best of Enemies” at The Colony Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/10); and  “Damn Yankees” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) (Ticketed for Sat 10/17). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.