The Manhattan Arts Center has once again brought live theater to our pandemic-starved local audience, and not just any old hank of script either. Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” played in the MAC’s Grosh Performance Center this past Friday through Sunday. The run will conclude with three shows this weekend, Feb. 26-28.
First off, a blanket commendation to the Art Center and all its staff and to every last body involved in seeing this production through to its ultimate presentation. It is truly service above and beyond the call and on behalf of the entire community I take it upon myself to extend a most grateful thank you.
Did I mention Shakespeare, the Greatest of the Great? O.K., so “As You Like It” likely wouldn’t make his “greatest hits” list, it’s still Him. Him in his “let’s be silly” mode, in which he also excels. You just have to give yourself over to it. To corrupt a line from T.S. Eliot, Not Hamlet, nor was meant to be. But mighty clever all the same.
Our troupe of 12 actors followed the lead of “Actors from the London Stage” productions, familiar to local audiences, in its bare bones settings, props and costumes and in role doubling and sexual neutrality, which made for flexibility of assignments. They even added a bit of slapstick with hand-drawn post-it note style name tags.
Of course as always with Shakespeare it’s the joy of words, the ceaseless flow of ingenuity and insight, slyly sharp and deceptively banal in turn. But it’s also a serious challenge to get hearers to take in the sense and spin of every bit and piece of that joyous verbal rush. That requires incredible articulative skill, made all the tougher with mouths being masked.
Which brings us to the show’s absolutely most brilliant techno move: Large-print captioning projected against the set’s blank back wall. A godsend to anyone new to Bard-talk. A welcome assist even to those familiar with the script.
Successful productions of Shakespeare plays depend on many factors, but perhaps most of all on the unfettered enthusiastic and cooperative commitment of its actors for the task at hand, a love for the job. It can’t sell a show wholly on its own, but it’s the heartbeat of victory. By this measurement, our cast simply could not have scored higher. To a person, they were There, body and soul, Duke to dustman, start to finish.
Given that the triumph so clearly resulted from a team effort, a well-synchronized pulling together, it is as a splendid dozen that they earned their applause. Still, a few standouts just can’t be ignored. Alicia Willard’s supercharged, scrappy Rosalind, the center that must hold, stayed strong and upbeat throughout. As her besotted scribbler lover Orlando, petite Bernice Poulter was a model of modest patience, except of course when he (she) body slammed Charles the Wrestler (a bellowing, fire-breathing Evan Brandt) or bested a lion in single combat. Rosalind’s ever loyal co-conspirator Celia (Katherine Coleman-Echols) sticks by her even when she knows it’s folly.
Audrey Artis is alternatively vengefully petty and sensibly decisive depending on which Duke she’s inhabiting, but ever of a haughty mien. Steph Houston’s Touchstone is nimble of wit, full of overnice distinctions, frivolous, roguishly charming withal. Donald Davis’s Jaques serves up the play’s big “Seven Ages” speech to good effect, featured as something of a time-stopping special event, but I was sorry to see the complexity of his character diminished. Yes, lines must go to keep within time constraints, but still . . .
All told, a romp well played. The master storyteller would have liked it. Kudos!