Dallas — Life is so often about our identities and sometimes trying to figure out who we are by pretending to be something we are not that going to theater can be an exercise in self-reflection writ large.
“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players” is a famous line that speaks to those roleplaying tendencies and it comes from Shakespeare’ best comedy and one of his most theatrical of plays, As You Like It.
The folktale-like AYLI explores the boundaries between reality and fantasy, features physical comedy, disguises, clowning, and musical interludes; In other words, a perfect play for a night in the park. Fortunately for Shakespeare Dallas’ flawed production of the beloved play it includes the Bard’s most sublime heroine, Rosalind, beautifully saved and played by Allison Pistorius.
As You Like It is SD’s summer companion piece to Shakespeare in Love. Whereas the latter was inspired by the Bard’s love life, the former is his inspired take on displacement, how we educate each other in love, and the nature of Nature.
Director Elizabeth Kirkland chooses a period setting and costumes (Rhonda R. Gorman) to tell the story of how Orlando (Justin Armer), cheated out of his inheritance by his older brother, must escape to outrun even more treachery. Before he flees, he meets Rosalind, who is the daughter of the exiled Duke Senior (Ethan Norris who also plays the usurping Duke Frederick). Rosalind is soon banished herself, but her besties Celia (Whitney Holotik) and the clown Touchstone (David Novinski) decide to accompany her into the forest. Rosalind disguises herself as young boy named “Ganymede” for safety’s sake and to play a wooing game with the unsuspecting Orlando.
The action of the play doesn’t really pick up until everyone makes it to the Forest of Arden, where there is a kind of pastoral second court of banished noblemen and their attendants who intermingle with the locals, and escapees with hilarious results.
One of the beauties of staging As You Like It is that it allows directors a lot of creative freedom in how to conceive of Arden. Is it a natural utopia juxtaposed to the pomp of town, or is it a figment of our imagination where we play out different realities to discover ourselves? Whatever the case, there should be a clear vision and demarcation between court and country. Alas, it is difficult to ascertain Kirkland’s interpretation of the forest (populated by Eric Barker’s bare trees and a too-high catwalk) and most of its inhabitants.
Even more confusing is how we are supposed to root for one of this production’s main protagonists. True, Orlando is never a match for the “heavenly Rosalind” — hardly anyone in the canon is — but there has to be a shred of something for her to admire and for the audience to believe she would fall for him. As dashing as Armer is, his fast-talking and slight Orlando has only one note, and he seems oddly way more into Ganymede than he is into Rosalind (is this intentional?). Furthermore, gender-blind casting has the evil Duke Frederick’s wrestler, Charles, now called “Charlene” (Karen Ruth) and taking a vicious beating by Orlando — at one point he grabs her hair and mashes her face into the boards. Male-on-female violence in a comedy just doesn’t work here.
The other unfortunate miss is Orlando’s older brother, Oliver (Edward Houser), who comes off as way younger, overly sarcastic, and vacillates between rage-shouting and a bizarre version of hipster jollity once he is “reformed.”
What saves this production are some truly virtuoso performances. Foremost of these is Pistorius’ brave, charming, and utterly loveable Rosalind. The role has been a rite of passage for many elite actors over the years, notably Peggy Ashcroft, Vanessa Redgrave, Katharine Hepburn, Maggie Smith, and Gwyneth Paltrow, to name a few. Pistorius delivers the finest live Rosalind I have ever seen. She imbues the part with so much heart and wit that it is easy to see why so many have fallen in love with the character.
Also up to the task is Holotik as Celia, who more than deserves being featured along with Pistorius in the production’s promotional poster. She trades barbs with saucy aplomb and her reactions and timing are spot-on. Novinski as the “motley fool” Touchstone puts on an acting clinic of physicality and deft wordplay. His deep understanding and conveyance of the text is a delight.
T.A. Taylor’s Jaques, a melancholy lord, is another rare treat. His “Seven Ages of Man” speech is a thing of poignant splendor. He also did some nifty covering for a faulty mic at the performance I reviewed.
Great supporting players work and delightful music composition and direction (Jake Nice) complete the production’s positives. Especially entertaining are the songs “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” and “Under the greenwood tree” featuring Amiens (a dulcet-voiced Celeste Perez).
“All the world’s a stage” indeed. It’s too bad that in this case the play performed is not fully worthy of the play.
» As You Like It runs in rotating repertory with Shakespeare in Love, with Shakespeare in Love performed on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays through July 21; and As You Like It performed on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, through July 19. Junior Players presents Much Ado About Nothing from July 30 through Aug. 4. Curtain is 8:15 p.m. for every performance.