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Couldn't 'like it' any better

By Beck Holden

Section: Arts

February 15, 2008

As the audience files in for the Brandeis Theater Company’s (BTC) new production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, directed by Adrianne Krstansky (THA), it is treated to a disconcerting image.

Live feeds of the audience members entering are projected onto screens with a massive pair of eyes superimposed on each projection. Such a paranoid beginning seems to suggest a taut psychological drama rather than a pastoral comedy, but the production quickly lays to rest any fears of an overly dark staging.

Featuring a talented graduate ensemble complemented by some of Brandeis’s finest undergraduate actors, a brilliant realization of the show’s comic possibilities, and an interesting exploration of the play’s more problematic elements, the current BTC production is a tremendously enthralling success.

The story of As You Like It begins with Orlando (Anthony Stockard GRAD), younger brother to Oliver (Sheldon Best ’08), both sons of a now-deceased knight who was loyal to the now-exiled Duke Senior (Matthew Crider GRAD).

Abusing the tradition of primogeniture, Oliver has refused Orlando the gentlemanly upbringing he is heir to by his father’s will, and when Orlando finally challenges this arrangement, Oliver tries to make sure the court wrestler Charles (Ilya Sobol ’08) will put a quick end to his brother’s rebellion. Orlando stuns the court by defeating Charles, winning the love of Rosalind (Ramona Alexander GRAD), daughter of the exiled duke, while revealing his lineage earns him the scorn of the usurping Duke Ferdinand (also Crider).

Upon learning of Oliver’s plot to kill him, Orlando flees to the Forest of Arden with his elderly manservant Adam (Molly Haas-Hooven ’09). Meanwhile, Duke Ferdinand decides to exile Rosalind, which causes his own daughter Celia (Sara Oliva GRAD), her best friend, to flee the palace as well. They decide that Rosalind should disguise herself as a man, and they should go to the Forest of Arden to seek Duke Senior, who has taken up residence in that forest with some of his most loyal lords.

The central success of Krstansky’s production is how modern the 400-year-old comedy has been made to feel. Examples of her touches include the wrestling match between Orlando and Charles becoming a hilarious send-up of WWE-style professional wrestling and little quirks like Rosalind and Celia solemnly sealing their oaths with pinky swears.

The other key to the show is the brilliant triumph in finding the comedy of the piece. Physical gags abound, Shakespeare’s rapid-fire wordplays flourish, and the actors ooze frantic energy as they keeps things moving along at the fast pace comedy demands.

And yet, the production does not simply stop at simply being an upbeat romantic comedy. For much of the play, Celia’s actions seem to be largely motivated by a homoerotic attraction to Rosalind, so it raises interesting questions when she falls and falls hard for one of the male characters later on. One of the marriages that ultimately forms leaves one character entrapped in a match that she clearly does not find at all pleasant.

Although it is celebrated as beautiful for much of the show, the brutality of the pastoral life in the Forest of Arden also emerges as a key theme. Lurking amidst the riotous comedy and touching romance, these little twists to the overall celebratory feel of most of the show give the production a little extra bite, elevating it above the level of a mere cheerful, romantic escape.

It is not possible, within the spatial confines of a newspaper article, to give every member of the acting ensemble the praise he or she deserves. The impressive twenty-one person cast features nine graduate actors, eleven undergrads, and one member of the Theater Arts faculty (Liz Terry), and there is no weak performance in the lot of them.

Alexander’s Rosalind is by turns playful and downtrodden, a harsh taskmaster and a love-stricken little girl, and an all-around pleasure to watch. Oliva brings a strong sense of comedy and a fiery intensity to Celia. Stockard offers a wonderfully earnest transparency as Orlando that draws the audience in at every part of the journey as he falls in love.

Also especially noteworthy is the six-piece band formed by Duke Senior’s comrades in exile, which provides excellent live music that frequently helps heighten the fun of the show and augments the tense, tragic tone of one particular scene.

The set (designed by Sarah Rozene GRAD) for the show consists primarily of a beautifully painted floor, a series of six panels in the back that begin as blank screens for projections but later spin to reveal a beautifully-painted forest, two screens that display projections throughout the show, and a tree and a stump that move about the stage to represent different parts of the forest. Overall, it is highly effective.

The projections (Seaghan McKay THA) are wonderfully successful at setting the mood for each scene, while the lighting (Holly McClung GRAD) consistently serves well to heighten the atmosphere without being overpowering. The sound design (J. Jumbelic) early in the show helps substantially to get the sense of fun rolling. Jennifer Tremblay’s (GRAD) costuming brings a certain flair to the production, especially in the sharp contrast between the chic dress of the palace and the rustic, practical clothing favored by inhabitants of the forest.

Overall, I do not balk at calling this the best production I have seen from the Brandeis Theater Company in the last three years. The easily relatable staging flourishes thanks to Krstansky’s excellent direction and the sheer strength of the performances, so much so that all two-and-a-half hours fly right by.

It will continue to run in Spingold’s Laurie Theater Friday, February 15 at 8 p.m., Saturday, February 16 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and present its final performance Sunday, February 17 at 2 p.m. I highly suggest anyone with any fondness for Shakespeare who is not in a rush to leave the campus for February break (or has flexible travel plans that can be bent to make room for this excellent production) try to swing by Spingold this weekend to catch a performance.

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