Review #1: ‘As You Like It’ at Folger Theatre

An updated classic that rocks!

Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It, is the icing on the Folger Theatre’s 25th season and its observance of the 400th anniversary of The Bard’s passing.

This show, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, was produced in association with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. Based in Garrison, New York, an hour’s drive north of Manhattan, The New York Times listed it among its “50 Essential Summer Festivals” last year.

Rosalind (Lindsay Alexandra Carter) is suddenly taken aback at the Duke’s masked ball with Orlando (Lorenzo Roberts). Photo by Teresa Wood.

Though it is not a musical, as this As You Like It features several original songs composed by Heather Christian, plus dances choreographed by Folger’s Alexandra Butler. At almost any other stage, a scenic designer starts with a desert and fills the space. For this show, Folger’s John McDermott cleverly integrated the set with the entire room, lavishly embellished with Tudor-inspired décor and detailing on all three levels, complete with a tile floor, carved oak moulding, trim and a pair of onstage, square, fluted and tiered columns; a wide double pocket door at the rear of the stage, and a mural of a unicorn painted on the ceiling. There is even a Romeo and Juliet balcony on either side of the stage, each with leaded glass windows. McDermott’s contribution was an imaginative, dimensional mural that suggested a forest, bracketed by a pair of back-lit panels suggesting Celtic trees with interwoven branches, and the use of minimal props for maximum effect including one rough-hewn ladder actually used as a ladder and a second one that doubled as a church archway. The final scene was especially dreamy.

Costume Designer Charlotte Palmer-Lane did almost as much as anyone to bring the show into the modern era with her costumes that were a deft blending of Mad Men, Wall Street, Duck Dynasty, Phantom of the Opera, and the teen scene at a local mall during prom season. One character, Touchstone, essentially the class clown, sports an amazing wardrobe of outlandishly colorful, sleek, close-cut suits – all worn with a fuchsia shirt and candy striped socks. The androgynous outfit of Rosalind conceals her femininity, but the color and slight roll of the character’s trousers subtly suggest the woman within.

Eric Southern’s lighting design quickly set the mood of each scene, rendering the characters in crisp detail. The sound design by Leon Rothenberg put the shake, rattle and roll into Shakespeare.

An absolute delight from start to finish, this is not your typical, fossilized, stick-to-the-script rendering of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. This is a version Ol’ Will would have loved. It’s fun, upbeat and even manages to insert a couple rap songs, a pounding of the ivories on an upright piano, touch dancing. and some poppin’ and lockin’.

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

Under the smooth, steady direction of Gaye Taylor Upchurch – a director deftly able to blend and balance modern humor with The Bard’s timeless script – Lindsay Alexandra Carter and Lorenzo Roberts were convincingly smitten with each other at first sight. Carter winningly dove into her chosen disguise and really relished the new persona.

The role was probably a radical depiction in Shakespeare’s day. Even more so when you consider women were not allowed to appear onstage. All the actors were men. The original “Rosalind” was a male actor portraying a woman who dressed as a man.

Upchurch had to do more than direct; she was a traffic cop, too. The large cast came and went – sometimes leaping and tossing props – from the stage through the audience, the rear of the stage, and four doors on the sides.

The cast is large – though several portrayed more than one character. And what a dream-cast: Lindsay Alexandra Carter (Rosalind), Lorenzo Roberts (Orlando), Michael Glenn (Oliver), Aaron Krohn (Touchstone), Kimberly Chatterjee (Audrey), Allen McCullough (Duke Senior and Duke Frederick), Antoinette Robinson (Celia), Jeff Keogh (Adam/Corin), Daven Ralston (Le Beau/Hymen), Brian Reisman (Silvius), Antoinette Robinson (Celia), Dani Stoller (Phoebe), Will Hayes (Charles), and Tom Story (Jaques) were all exceptional. They portrayed this work of Shakespeare as a living breathing work of art, instead of a laminated classic. They are easily one of the best Ensembles I have seen on the stage-ever!

What made the difference?

They “spoke” the 17th century vernacular but delivered the legendary phrases with 21st century facial expressions, vocal emphasis, and gestures.

Tom Story (Jaques). Photo by Teresa Wood.

Touchstone was a keystone in this regard, especially the wink-wink scene where he is about to blow his nose on a pair of unmentionables, but all the characters served up a dollop of urban millennial attitude with the timeless phraseology.

In brief, Oliver, the older of two brothers, withholds his younger sibling’s share of their father’s estate. He even tries to have his brother killed by Charles (a buff Will Hayes in blue lycra) during a wrestling match. Conducted like a WWE bout, Orlando is victorious. During the event, he meets and is instantly smitten by Rosalind. Afterward, to avoid any more trouble with his brother, Orlando heads off to the Forest of Arden.

Another set of brothers have issues, too. Duke Frederick forces his older brother Duke Senior from his throne and into exile in a cave in Arden. More family issues cause Duke Senior’s daughter Rosalind to leave the castle of her uncle Duke Frederick. She takes her best friend with her, his daughter Celia, and the fool Touchstone.

Before she departs for Arden, Rosalind, knowing she will encounter Orlando, assumes a male identity and attire. She is Ganymede for most of the play.

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

The Folger Theatre production has a six-week run so there’s no excuse for not seeing this wonderful, well-crafted, and hysterically funny version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

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.

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