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In the Moment: ‘As You Like It’ at Folger Theatre

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Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s appealing direction gives Folger Theatre’s As You Like It a warm flirtatious essence with buffoonery galore masking over Shakespeare’s initial soulful melancholic core.

The cast of ‘As You Like It.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

With modern notions that love can be a transforming force, that risky behavior can have huge rewards, and that women can be every bit as  commanding and stealthy as any male, Shakespeare’s As You Like It is a rewarding night out especially in shivering February weather.

For those less familiar with The Bard’s As You Like It, it is a comic vision about love and marriage. Not only do central characters Rosalind (Lindsay Alexandra Carter) and Orlando (Lorenzo Roberts) become unexpectedly smitten with each other, but so do several others couples. It all leads to a very happy ending. But know that As You like It begins its ascent into joy and silliness only after some nasty recriminations leading to a well-to-do family’s break-up with several not well thought through banishments into rustic woods.

The play also contains several oft-memorized in high school lines such as: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.”

Corin (Jeff Keogh, left) and Touchstone (Aaron Krohn). Photo by Teresa Wood.

Before I provide some of my specific observations, here is the link to my DCMTA colleague Wendi Winters’ As You Like It review.

For those interested in reading the full text, the official Folger Library link is here. So, let me add several thoughts to Winters assessment of As You Like It.

–Upchurch has brought Celia, Rosalind’s resolute close cousin and ally into the visual forefront of the production. In the splendid portrayal by Antoinette Robinson, Celia is a physical foil to Rosalind’s forthright speaking out. Celia is the needed “response” to Rosalind’s outpouring “calls.” As plays by Robinson, Celia is no mere second banana, for without Celia, Rosalind would be a just a lost urchin. Celia requires Rosalind to react to forcefully delivered lines such as:

Cry, “whoa!” to your tongue, please. It’s leaping about like a frisky horse”

Or

“You have simply misused our sex.

-I enjoyed how Upchurch brought visual emphases for so many of the secondary characters who could have been invisible, but in this case aren’t. Upchurch gave them visual time before the audience so as to be noticed even if they had only a few lines of dialogue. And the actors playing these secondary roles made the most of their time. To me the overall production fed off the energy of secondary characters as much as on the love-struck Rosaline and Orlando.

-Upchurch’s direction provided a gender-fluid sensuality and delirious shrewd sexuality to the production. Such characterizations went well beyond Rosalind’s time cross-dressing as a gamin male named Ganymede. Smitten couples had few hard-and-fast boundaries or limiting barriers to how characters were permitted to react to each other. Being outside the confines of their usual society allowed them major room to explore themselves without fear of being “outed” in any way. It reminded me of that great ending line in the movie Some Like it Hot:

-Now for those familiar with the textual nastiness and physically muscularity of Shakespeare’s As You Like It in its early scenes from previous productions. The Bard’s rich testosterone has a rather “low-T” physicality to it at the Folger. Anger seemed muted and a wrestling match was more showy rather than foreboding.

-One of the most distinct female secondary character portrayal is by Dani Stoller’s as a love-torn Phoebe. Stoller is a wild hoot of an interpretation of a woman in love who may be misjudging her love object. She simply throws herself into the role as if working without a net. Sure she can be overblown at time, but nobody is perfect.

-I clearly saw and totally enjoyed a Cindi Lauper doppelganger in the character of Audrey (Kimberly Chatterjee). She is a character with few words but needed none to get her visual presence stuck happily in my brain. Chatterjee is also the dance captain and voice coach.

Tom Story (Jaques). Photo by Teresa Wood.

-Tom Story delivered the famous “All the World’s A Stage” with a relaxed deep resonance befitting their absolute power. He didn’t need to be showy and he wasn’t. As I watched him throughout As You Like It, it came to take on a Walt Whitman-like visage as the quiet poet and astute observer of all that goings-on.

-When Will Hayes as strong-man character Charles struck poses similar to recent Olympic champion Usain Bolt; well the entire Folger audience laughed in unison. Without a word spoken, Hays was priceless in depicting his character.

-Finally, Upchurch, and Costume Designer Charlotte Palmer-Lane conspired to provide several visually dramatic moments when double-cast actors removed their outer clothing to reveal another characters they portrayed without saying a word. There was complete hush as they did so.

Upchurch’s As You Like It left me reeling with two mental metaphors, one contemporary and the other a bit more ancient. First, the very contemporary; Lin Manuel Maranda’s Tony Award poem “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside.”

And for the Baby Boomers among us this from The Youngbloods’ 1967 Hippie anthem “Come Together”

Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Right now

As You Like It is a rewarding, uplifting theatrical sojourn  Upchurch succeeded in showing me that “The people in As You Like It are seekers, They seek refuge, they seek society, they seek love, they seek joy-and they take great risks to obtain these things.”

Folger’s As You Like It is a splendid “celebration of great risk-taking and human folly,” just as Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch hoped. It is full of the sparkles and flames that love can be.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

As You Like It plays through March 5, 2017, at Folger Theatre – 201 East Capitol Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.

Note: Here is the full cast of As You Like It.

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