Wednesday, June 16, 2010

High Art - Richard II (On Trapeze) and As You Like It - Shakespeare Review

Richard II - Sonnet Repertory Theatre and Matchbook Productions at The Tank at 45th Street Theatre - Off-Broadway - New York, NY - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Steven Cole Hughes
Closed May 23rd 2010

As You Like It - Stratford Shakespeare Festival - Festival Theatre - Stratford, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Des McAnuff
Opened June 7th, Runs until Oct. 31st. Review based on early preview.

Am I allowed to criticize William Shakespeare? Or has it been established that he's the "best" playwright because we all have to automatically learn him in high school?

And if I don't completely understand or like parts of the play, is it because of the theatre company, the direction, and its performance? Or when I don't understand the Shakespeare play completely, can I still like the performance?

Two productions, one from a small theatre partnership, another from a large established Shakespeare Festival, present entertaining and enjoyable revivals of two Shakespeare plays that I didn't completely get. Sonnet Repertory Theatre and Matchbook Productions together managed to turn the mostly speech driven play Richard II, one that has very little plot, into a riveting and exciting new way to present Shakespeare. On trapeze! 5 of them actually!

Stratford Shakespeare Festival does As You Like It and while I didn't totally get what was going on all the time, I still liked it. With a huge cast of characters and a plot that goes everywhere and anywhere, starting as a tragedy and ending as a comedy, As You Like It has got it all and maybe too much, but Des McAnuff does a nice job with a surrealistic approach to reign it all in.

Richard II only had a short run Off-Broadway at the small Tank Theatre and has already closed, but I'm hoping it'll be revived or make it around on the festival circuit, whether it be at Fringes or maybe even be invited by a larger Shakespeare Festival and played as a side studio alternative (how great would it be if it could play at Stratford's Studio Theatre? Maybe in repertoire with As You Puppet (a hysterical puppet version of As You Like It)? Wouldn't that be cool?).

Because just hearing Richard II On Trapeze almost sounded like a recipe for disaster. But by adding the high act gimmick to one of Shakespeares simpler plotted plays, director Steven Cole Hughes and the cast manage to turn a wordy, slow moving play into something innovative, fresh and compelling.

First off, I figured by throwing the trapeze gimmick in and requiring the actors to be adept in the physicality it requires, their Shakespeare performances would be lacking, but instead, I was astounded by the beautiful line readings and emotive stylings of the small cast. Vince Nappo was a terrific Richard against a wonderfully rough Khris Lewin as Bullingbrooke. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the cast played multiple characters and beautifully switched from role to role in easily definable characters without resorting to caricatures. With a flip of a costume accessory (whether it be a scarf, an eye glass or a hat) and with changes in the tone and speech, Mat Hostetler, Daniel Loser (both above) and Brent Rose were masterful at each role and each switched from more dramatic roles to comical ones when needed.

While the play is heavy on the male dominance, Danielle Slavick, Kiebpoli Calnek and Eileen Little (as the Queen) wonderfully fill out the cast in the other roles but it's the joint unity of the entire ensemble that manages to bring the heavy and serious play about a simple reigning takeover into a surprisingly affective piece of theatre.

The use of the trapezes was simply brilliant in its staging and didn't become just a crutch or silly gimmick. From death scenes to sailing on a ship, the company uses the trapezes as intelligent and clever set pieces that heighten (no pun intended) the story and Shakespeares words. Ryan O'Gara's (Million Dollar Quartet, All About Me, West Side Story, In the Heights) simple but beautiful lighting design on a wonderfully simple set becomes another character in itself, while Emily Lippolis' fitting and flexible costumes (and sometimes lack thereof! Hey, they're young, fit, and trapeze artists, it was a nice bonus) and the live music by Nathan Cohen and Matt Dallow all helped to created a unique take on a Shakespeare play.

While Des McAnuff doesn't quite revamp As You Like It, he does bring a surrealistic vision to the loopy play that involves a ton of characters and starts as a tragedy and shifts to a comedy full of song and dance. I'm still not sure where the whole play is going and I'm not sure if the first act is really ever needed beyond a quick set up to explain Rosalind's banishment into the Forest of Arden, but while the multiple storylines meander in all sorts of directions within the forest, I found myself enjoying the whole confusing thing.

While I'm not sure I really needed the darker Nazi inspired first act, I did love Debra Hanson's scenic design, and it's made even all the more wonderful when it disappears in front our very eyes to reveal the colourful crispness of the Forest of Arden with a tinge of surrealism that glazes over the entire stage.

The surrealism only helps emphasize Brent Carver's (above, Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Lord of the Rings The Musical) Jacques, the lost and lone soul who observes all the banished souls find their partners while running amuck in the forest. Jacques utters the famous lines "All the world's a stage..." and Carver brings a soothing solemn and contemplative aura to his Jacques.

Andrea Runge (above with Ricketts) makes for a delightful Rosalind, the daughter of Duke Senior (Tom Rooney), and who has been banished by her uncle Duke Frederick (also Tom Rooney, just to make it even more confusing), but her cousin Celia (Cara Ricketts), Frederick's daughter, follows Rosalind into the forest where Rosalind pretends to be a man Ganymede, and eventually meets up with the Duke and his fellow banished followers. There's of course the handsome Orlando (Paul Nolan) who falls instantly in love with Rosalind, and is too banished to the forest by his vengeful older brother Oliver (Mike Shara). And that just STARTS the story. We'll meet many more characters along the way, including Touchstone (Ben Carlson), Rosalind and Celia's attendant, and some Shepherd's (Randy Hughson and Ian Lake).

It's a terrific cast with many of Stratford's best on hand. Paul Nolan, hot off last year's West Side Story and Stratford's star-in-the-making, is perfectly handsome and charming as Orlando.

Mike Shara (above, a hysterical delight in last year's The Importance of Being Earnest, that happens to be moving to Broadway in December) is perfectly villainous and pettily comedic as Oliver.

Ben Carlson (also superb in last year's The Importance of Being Earnest) brings a perfect lightness to Touchstone and is well matched by Lucy Peacock (above with Carlson) as Audrey.

Randy Hughson (above with Carlson), like his role in last year's A Funny Happened On The Way To The Forum (which transfers to Toronto later this fall), manages to illicit huge laughs from simple facial expressions. His young counterpart Ian Lake is a gem as a lovelorned shepherd and makes his smaller role incredibly memorable. Dalal Badr's Phoebe is hilarious as Lake's shepherd's love interest.

The cast is so overpopulated with Stratford's best that terrific actors like Mike Nadajewski and Dan Chameroy are relegated to smaller roles. With Nadajeski and Jewelle Blackman (both also appearing in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris this season) amongst the cast who sings the musical moments within the play, McAnuff manages to stage some delightfully folksy moments in in a non-musical show.

While I'm a sucker for Shakespeare's cross-dressing-match-them-all-up-for-a-perfect-ending, I'm still not sure I understood the point of some of the meandering stories in As You Like It, but luckily McAnuff's light touch with the terrific cast manages to bring a charm and joy to the confusing plot.

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1 comment:

Stratfordfest said...

Thank you so much for your comments on As You Like It. I think it's great that even though you didn't get everything that was going on you were able to find some great things you enjoyed. Hopefully we'll see more reviews from you throughout the season.
Aaron Kropf
Social and Online Media Coordinator
Stratford Shakespeare Festival