Dallas — “Shakespeare belongs to everyone!”
That sentiment delivered during Dallas Theater Center Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty’s curtain speech to raucous applause launches DTC’s third annual Public Works Dallas production, an uplifting and spiritual production of As You Like It.
The project is a “celebration of art and community that seeks to welcome the people of Dallas into the heart of Dallas Theater Center.” This musical adaptation version of Shakespeare’s comedy, adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Wollery and with music and lyrics by Taub, features five professional actors and 200 community members (children, teenagers and adults) from Bachman Lake Together Family Center, City of Dallas Parks and Recreation Department, Jubilee Park and Community Center, Literacy Achieves, and Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT). Cameo groups include Dallas Kiyari Dance, Jiu Long Lion Dance Troupe, and the Wylie School Pirate Choir.
One would think that so many people on and off the stage and even in the aisles would be sensory overload; instead, the crowd of thespians fulfil that Bard belonging to all declaration and the first lines of the play by Jacques (Tiana Kaye Blair), “All the World’s a Stage.” What follows is 90 minutes of pure theatrical and inclusive bliss, a journey of the many roles that all of us play.
Director and choreographer Ann Yee marshals the multitudinous and diverse cast and the many moving parts of the show into a thing of beauty that captures not only the spirit of Shakespeare’s play but the beating heart of Dallas as well.
The plot is the same but with so much more to transform it to heights rarely seen in most conventional productions of AYLI. Rosalind (Tiffany Solano DeSena) meets “cute” with Orlando (Christopher Llewyn Ramirez) at a wrestling match where he bests Duke Frederick’s (Fredrick Jones) champion, Bronco (Norma Cruz). The young lovers flee separately to the forest of Arden under the threat of banishment and death. Orlando leads faithful old servant, Adam (Tom Morris), and Rosalind totes along childhood friend Celia (Rebecca Weber) and the jester Touchstone (Ace Anderson).
Arden is where the real magic of As You Like It happens, and this production is no different. There the rightful Duke Senior (Alex Organ) rules a hippy trippy group of fellow exiles on scenic designer Lex Liang’s sylvan set of an enormous transforming tree set in opposition to the court’s chain linked modern dystopia.
Outstanding performances are almost too many to mention. The pros (all DTC Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company members) are reliably fantastic, especially Anderson’s wisecracking and put-upon Touchstone, and Blair’s truth-telling misanthrope who delivers some of the best lines of the show (“Oh look, it’s Romeo’s understudy.”). Ramirez as Orlando slays the laugh-out-loud song “Will U Be My Bride,” conceived as a Boy Band hit; and Organ’s cult leader-like Duke Senior makes us all want to run to the forest. Any good AYLI relies on Shakespeare’s greatest heroine Rosalind and DeSena pulls off the nearly impossible by being equal parts great in and out of drag and has serious pipes to match.
Jones as the imperious Duke Frederick is a laugh riot complete with golden hobby horse that he has wheeled around by his underlings, and Edmund Simpson II’s Audrey (Andy in this version) is more than a fetching mate for Touchstone.
Taub’s songs and dance numbers are stars in their own right. Standouts include the show opening “All the World’s a Stage,” “Rosalind, Be Merry,” “In Arden,” and “Under the Greenwood Tree.” The Lion Dance troupe sequence is particularly thrilling, and the Japanese drummers in the Kirayi troupe had hearts pounding. Live music is provided by music director Vonda K. Bowling (piano conductor), Jeffrey Bowling (keys 2), Dennis Langevin (guitar), KJ Gray (Bass), and Terence Hobdy (drums). Adding to the magic are scenic and costume designer Lex Liang, lighting designer Amanda West, sound designer Andrea Allmond, and hair and make-up designer Jason Hayes.
Community and theater should forever be entwined, and nothing embodies that truism more than this Public Works program. I wasn’t in Dallas for the first two years of the program, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, but As You Like It has me excited for the future of this program, which was originally conceived by Lear deBessonet for the Public Theater in New York.
All the world’s a stage indeed.