As far as plays go, As You Like It has a little bit of everything. Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy brings us death, weddings, country shenanigans, court intrigue and attacks from wild animals. All of which are possible only through the unpredictability of fate and the indefatigable power of the human will. From the onset, it is clear director and Lantern Artistic Director Charles McMahon has a plan for navigating through the topsy turvy tale of exiled Rosalind wooing her beloved Orlando in the guise of a country boy. The most salient tools the production relies on are music and an ensemble style storytelling. Both aspects have their high points and at other times, don’t quite live up to their potential.
From the very first moments of the play, music and song are introduced as integral parts of the story. This makes sense. With several songs written into the text, the Bard himself seems to have wanted a more musical play. Michael Hahn, composer and music director, took this cue and ran with it. The opening image, with the entire company providing deep, almost monastic vocals, introduces us to the world. While still a comedy, this opening number reminds us that we are entering into a kingdom fresh from a violent regime change. The music, however, does not remain solely atmospheric—character’s turn to instruments and singing throughout. In fact, we first meet Rosalind as she plays a melancholy cello. This is one of the multitude of ways Lantern newcomer, but Philly theatre veteran Liz Filios shines as Rosalind (she also goes on to sing and play accordion, masterfully).
Adam Altman, as one of the exiled Duke’s nomadic lords, is another player who continually brings music to the production, singing most of the Shakespearean songs arranged by Hahn. While, in some moments the musical interludes may feel a bit more out of place than helpful, when they work they help make sense of the human foibles and twists of fate in ways only music can.
The other driving force behind the storytelling is it’s focus on ensemble. All but three players double or even triple in characters. However, even with brief moments where every actor seems to be on equal footing, certain individuals undoubtedly rise to the top—Filios and Jake Blouch, as Orlando, among the first. Filios is disarmingly charming. Even in the most gloomy scenes, her presence on stage is undeniable. She is a joy to behold. Blouch’s Orlando is not the typical star-crossed lover one might expect. He brings more foolishness and weight to the swain. Yet, while at times he certainly plays more clown than lover, Blouch’s specific brand of grounded earthiness holds up a nice contrast to Orlando’s natural head in the clouds temperament.
Still, it is not the leads alone who shine bright. Among the other standouts are Ruby Wolf’s Celia, Chris Anthony’s Charles the Wrestler, and especially Frank X’s Jaques. X—who plays both Adam and the would be philosopher, Jaques—is not only powerful in his individual roles, but considering his characters together, he is a force to be reckoned with. X’s tracking as both the loyal, wise Adam and the worldweary, yet profound Jaques shows the breadth of humanity which can rise to the surface when an ensemble style show is taken for all it’s worth. All of which comes to a head when X delivers one of the Bard’s most well known speeches: “all the world’s a stage…” X subtly works his way into the stages of man and by the end his Jaques seems to make a discovery that surprises even himself in all his cynicism. The result is touching.
Taking a step back, the production itself feels like two halves. We spend a period in the onetime court of Duke Senior, now home to Duke Frederick—both played by Kirk Wendell Brown. This first half seems to drag a bit. Admittedly, the characters don’t have much to be happy about at this point, which may contribute to the less than streamlined pace. Duke Frederick banishes Rosalind and a distraught Celia, joins her. Orlando finds he too can no longer live in the court. Even the fool Touchstone, played by J Hernandez, doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself. However, what the first half lacks in pacing, the second makes up for it. Once we are comfortably in the Forest of Arden, the production and all its characters settle into a more enjoyable groove.
The production seems to fly when at its simplest. Whenever two or three characters are left onstage to earnestly figure out their problems or convince one another of their views, the text, actors and energies all align, and the scene takes flight. Rosalind and Celia’s argument over Orlando’s hanging love poems is a prime example among many. Scenes lose their steam when they become over-complicated by physicality and contemporary ad-libs. However, once the actors land themselves back in world of the play, the energy is regained and they’re back at it.
Janus Stefanowicz’s costume design grounds the characters in a ragtag assemblage of coats, hats, scarves and boots spanning several periods. While still in the court, this strikes a bit odd, especially when a sense of rank feels lost. Yet, once we land in the forest the disparate elements come together, just like the various characters that converge there.
Lantern Theatre Company’s As You Like It takes after its characters. It runs the gauntlet emotionally, atmospherically and energetically. At times you would hesitate to call it a comedy, at others, you’re laughing out loud. Ultimately, it asks the audience to wear their hearts on their sleeves just like the characters; and that’s a fitting request for a play which lets us glimpse the worst and the best of our humanity, all the while pausing for reflection in the woods.
Running Time: Three hours, with one intermission.
As You Like It plays through Sunday, April 17, 2016 at the Lantern Theater Company—10th and Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 829-0395, or purchase them online.
Liz Filios Takes on Shakespeare in ‘As You Like It’ at Lantern Theater Company in Philadelphia by Deb Miller.