Review: ‘As You Like It’ at Keegan Theatre

The paradise in Shakespeare’s Arden Forest, a beautiful place where everybody is happy, communal, and fed, doesn’t exist in reality. But if it did, you’d want to be there. And since you can’t, here’s the next best thing: Keegan Theatre’s portrayal of the mystic setting and the fun, fast and incredible comedy and romance that go along with it.

The cast of As You Like It. Photo by Cameron Whitman
The cast of ‘As You Like It.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman

Adapted by the unparalleled Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery and directed by Cara Gabriel and Josh Sticklin, Keegan Theatre’s As You Like It brings something fresh, current and exhilarating to this age-old but timeless Shakespearean text. It’s not only because the play is a contemporary musical complete with modern music, creative dancing, and genius set design, but because the cast’s humor, energy, and synergy make the Shakespearean romantic comedy so thrilling and so timely. The set is beautiful (thank Set Designer Mathew Keenan). The music is beautiful (thank Music Director Tiffany Underwood Holmes). The dancing is beautiful (thank Choreographer Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi). The costumes are beautiful (thank Costume Designer Jeanette Christensen). It’s all just beautiful (really, thank everybody involved).

It begins in court—the court of the hilariously pompous and absurd Duke Frederick (Patrick M. Doneghy) who has recently banished his own brother, Duke Senior (Jade Jones), to the forest of Arden and is enjoying some well-earned entertainment—and by that, I mean a raucous, WWE-inspired wrestling tournament featuring leather and spandex-clad masked wrestlers—with his daughter Celia (Linda Bard) and niece Rosalind (Depora Crabbe). Rosalind was never banished with her father because of her friendship with Celia, but her relationship with Duke Frederick, who always enters stage among harrowing cries, flashlights and umbrellas, is tenuous.

But really, it begins in song, as Jacques (Caroline Dubberly), the ever-present wise and cynical character, introduces the audience to the play with the opening of “All the World’s a Stage.” Throughout the show, the characters live up to those words. Unconfined to the utilitarian grey stage, the ensemble runs among the audience members and depending on where you sit, you might have somebody whispering snarky asides into your ear.

Eventually, Rosalind realizes she cannot stay in court and flees with Celia and the drunkenly boisterous uncle Touchstone (Phillip Reid) in tow. Meanwhile, Orlando (Kevin Thorne II) also flees Frederick’s lands, escaping murder by his angry (but perhaps justified) brother Oliver (Omar D. Cruz), with his pathetically weak and needy servant in tow.

What follows is a complicated web of love and deception, punctuated by the incredible musical numbers that serve as highlights of the show. Rosalind and Orlando fall in love while singing “After the Match,” amidst red lighting as Orlando’s knees grow weak. But when they meet again after fleeing, she’s disguised as a man. She agrees to help him woo his love (herself) by pretending to be, well, herself and having him practice on her.

Caroline Wolfson and Bianca Lipford. Photo by Cameron Whitman
Silvia (Caroline Wolfson) and Phoebe (Bianca Lipford). Photo by Cameron Whitman

Meanwhile, local farmer Silvia (Caroline Wolfson), at whose cottage Rosalind and Celia are staying, pursues her love, Phoebe (Bianca Lipford). But Phoebe falls for Rosalind, disguised as a man, who is falling increasingly in love with Orlando, though he doesn’t know that she is her. In the number “You Phoebe Me,” all of this becomes manifest, as each character grapples with their love and the very real prospects of rejection. Meanwhile, Touchstone, the rough and tumble-drunk uncle, also finds love in the forest with Andy (Nigel Rowe). But he’s wishy-washy, and Andy doesn’t have time for that. Celia, too, eventually falls in love—for Orlando’s evil but reformed brother, Oliver. Are you keeping up?

Before the play’s over, the love must get sorted, reconciled, and put into place. After all, this is a Shakespearean comedy romance, and you know, or at least hope, that happily ever after awaits.

Before anybody can get there, however, there’s the small issue of Duke Frederick sending assassins after the escapees, and eventually traveling to Arden himself to confront his banished brother.   

You probably know the story already. As You Like It has been around since roughly 1599—that’s about 420 years of reruns of the same show. So it’s both a happy coincidence and somewhat of a shock that one of the best versions is being put on in a small Dupont theatre during November of 2018.

A big reason why? The music and musical numbers, the fantastic acting (the entire ensemble was superb), and the quaint, simple-but-dynamic set.

[Related: Shaina Taub Lovers Rejoice! ‘As You Like It’ Lands at Keegan Theatre. An Interview with Co-Directors Cara Gabriel and Josh Sticklin]

Do you like rap? R&B? Classic rock? Disco? Pop? It’s all here. Do you like flamboyant purple suits donned by angry feudal lords? Do you like ridiculous love stories? Or the tragic, relatable situation where a woman must explain to the man she loves that she’s more than a one-dimensional societal caricature of a woman, but in fact a complete human with thoughts, feelings and insecurities? Do you like love stories of every sort?

Do you love theatres that take old plays and transform them into a contemporary reality? And banished outskirt communities filled with love, equality and communal living?

The cast carries the play to excellence. Each main character sings, dances, and emotes. And there are some standout moments: Duke Frederick’s growing anger as symmetrical umbrellas welcome him on stage; Duke Senior’s unreal voice during the musical numbers “Under the Greenwood Tree” and “Oh Deer”; Jacques’ quick bout of excitement then disappointment when somebody finally takes an interest in his passions; the moment Celia, after nearly an hour of excellent character-work and singing, picks up a cello and starts playing it; a wild and excellent WWE-inspired wrestling match with dramatic music, and spandex and leather-clad wrestlers; Orlando’s funky rendition of “Imagine I’m Your Lover”; Rosalind’s anchoring performance; Andy and Touchstone’s raw chemistry.  

The remaining ensemble excels, too, as they jump from character to character, backup singer, dancer and more, especially Willie Garner and Jasmine Hall.

It’s a meticulous play that spares no detail or expense, nor does it overlook any single word, note, quirk, dance move or fight scene. And I’d be remiss not to mention Tiffany Underwood Holmes, who plays the keyboard in each number and directed the music more generally. This contemporary remix of Shakespeare’s classic is well worth your time.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

As You Like It plays through December 2, 2018, at Keegan Theatre — 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC 20036. For tickets, purchase them online.