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You May Like It

Shakespeare Ensemble’s Latest A Mixed Bag

By Lance Nathan

staff writer

‘As You Like It’

Shakespeare Ensemble

Directed by Tom Garvey ’82

Starring John Hume, David Brackman ’83, Stephen D. Larson ’02, Rydia Q. Vielehr ’04, Cat Miller ’05, Geoff Pingee '83, and Josh Lifton G

As You Like It, the latest offering from the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble, covers a lot of ground: love and hate, rural simplicity and courtly manners, cross-dressing and professional wrestling. While many of the moments are well-played, the overall effect of the performance lacks a perfect coherence.

The play centers around a duchy ruled by the usurper Duke Frederick (Carl Krenzel ’89), who long ago banished his older brother, the rightful duke (Ken Buswell), to the nearby forest of Arden. An increasingly paranoid Frederick now banishes his brother’s daughter Rosalind (Rydia Q. Vielehr ’04) as well. Frederick’s own daughter Celia (Cat Miller ’05) leaves with her, and they travel in disguise, Rosalind as a man and Celia as a commoner, accompanied by the court fool Touchstone (Geoff Pingree '83).

At the same time, Orlando (John Hume) flees the tyrannical household of his older brother Oliver (Stephen D. Larson ’02), taking the faithful servant Adam (David Brackman ’83). Orlando and Rosalind had met just that afternoon and have fallen instantly in love; now, by coincidence, they take refuge in the same forest, and Rosalind uses her disguise to instruct Orlando in the ways of love and wooing.

Clearly, this is not the deepest of love stories, and unlike Twelfth Night with its single plot and single subplot, As You Like It bounces from couple to couple -- Orlando and Rosalind, Touchstone and Audrey (Brandy L. Evans ’01), Phebe (Diane L. Christoforo ’05) and Silvius (Richard C. Reifsnyder ’03), with frequent digression for music or glimpses of the two courts, the one in the city and the one in exile. The script, unlike many of Shakespeare’s, cannot carry the play on its own merits, and requires a uniformly strong production.

And indeed, this production has many strengths. Tom Garvey ’82 brings together actors, set, lighting, and music to create a visually and aurally striking play. The starkness of the city court, with its rigid movements, confining and colorless costumes, and cold lighting contrasts with the colorful and open feel of the forest; certainly this production has no visually dull moments.

Moreover, most of the actors transform their simple, one-dimensional characters into real people. This is evident from the first scene, where Hume, Brackman, and Larson provide the intensity and passion needed to draw in the audience. Kraenzel sneers his lines like an evil overlord, with a costume to match, setting the mood for the opening acts.

Unfortunately, Vielehr (and, to a lesser extent, Miller) speeds through her lines like a giddy schoolgirl, out-of-place in the city and hard to understand throughout. By the time the action shifts to the forest, and consequently to the Rosalind/Orlando relationship, Vieleher’s physical abilities -- a fine command of movement and facial expression -- only barely save her performance, returning some of the power lost by her vocal delivery.

Similarly, while Buswell and his lords (Lisa R. Messeri ’04, Alice S. Tsay ’03) offer a relaxed and content image of the court-in-exile, setting the mood for the Arden scenes, this mood is nearly broken by Kraenzel's Jacques. In an unfathomable decision, Kraenzel was cast as both the evil Duke Frederick and the melancholy courtier Jacques, and apparently in an effort to differentiate the two roles, he plays the latter in an energetic and over-the-top manner. In doing so, he drains the role of its necessary gloom and turns the monologues into mere exercises in delivery; he struggles through the play’s most famous speech, “All the world’s a stage,” as if desperate to make it interesting.

And, while the technical work serves the production well in most places, it does not do so unerringly. Phebe’s costume, for instance, belongs to a stereotypical Little-Bo-Peep shepherdess, a silly deviation from the otherwise simple clothing worn by other forest natives. Even worse, when her hair does not block her face, her shepherd’s crook does.

Also disappointing was the lighting; while appropriately dim (with unfortunate warm spots) for the first act, the second act badly needed enough lighting to see clearly. Instead, the actors stood in half-shadows, reminiscent of trees, but more frustrating than mood-setting.

Fortunately, the second act was mostly rescued by the cast -- particularly Hume in his scenes with Vielehr, and Pingree, whose Touchstone is genuinely amusing and supplies a frantic energy missing from many of the other scenes. Luckily, Pingree is well-supported; for instance, Evans’ Audrey and her suitor William (Jeremy T. Braun ’02) display the rustic honesty and simplicity required to set off the refined manners of the courtiers.

Rescued, at least, until the end. Shakespeare rushes to tie up all the loose ends with a deus ex machina, literally, in the form of Hymen (Jessica E. Hinel ’03), and figuratively, in the religious conversion of the evil Duke -- and the play ends on a long dance and an epilogue from Rosalind. It’s a weak ending, weakened by uninspiring choreography and a low point in an otherwise excellent score from composer Chris Eastburn.

In the final analysis, the production does have its fine moments and strong performances. It is by no means unpleasant or disappointing; but at the same time, it is held back from excellence. When Rosalind complains in her epilogue that she “cannot insinuate with you in the behalf of a good play,” it's hard to completely disagree with her assessment.