“What happens when you take the cadre of wacky characters from Shakespeare’s As You Like It out of the forest, plop them onto Venice Beach in 2009, and morph them into their modern day LA counterparts? You’re about to find out! Perhaps you’ll even have a bit of déjà vu!”
So goes director Jeff Morris’ program note, explaining the concept behind Declan Adams Theatre’s current production. It’s an ambitious concept, but why not? I’ve seen Taming of the Shrew set in the old west, Timon of Athens in 1920s black and white, and a turn-of-the-century Much Ado About Nothing, all brilliant, satisfying productions. But how would a play with Dukes and banishment and fools and such translate into a modern day Los Angeles setting? Well, a bit clunkily, as it turns out, but with some success along the way. Ultimately, it all depends on whether this kind of Shakespeare is as you, you know, like it.
I nearly missed the performance, as I twice drove right past the sketchy bi-level strip mall that houses the Next Stage Theatre. Sharing the property with a liquor store, Launderland, the offices of LA X-press (a seamy adult entertainment rag) and a key-copying kiosk, the Next Stage is so petite that the lighting booth is also the ticket booth. Still, it has a warmth about it. Once inside, playgoers find seating on wrought iron benches with surprisingly comfortable cushioning. The black box theatre and set by cast member Frank Astran show all the signs of a shoestring budget. The upstage wall is covered in yellow felt with a door of black shutters. On either side of the stage is a series of three vertically adjoined pop art paintings of LA. Between scenes, the paintings flip to create the next setting. Cubes serve as everything else.
Here in LA, where a two o’clock appointment means the person you’re meeting might show up around two forty-five if they show up at all, “close enough” is considered good enough. And the style of this presentation is LA through and through: casual, loose and not too hung up on tradition. First of all, sticklers for text and scansion stay home. This is Shakespeare performed like TV, in a thrown-away style, and phrased however is easiest. At times, the performers even “make it their own” as TV actors are wont to do, by adding phrases like “y’know,” “hey,” “yeah” and even “whatchamacallit.” (Me? That’s where I draw the line. Shakespeare should never be paraphrased.) Then, Morris’ choice to change the genders of several of the roles led this company to also change some of the gender-specific words, throwing off Shakespeare’s rhythms. So don’t bother counting the beats. They’re not always there.
But a Shakespeare instructor of mine once said, “If people leave the theatre thinking ‘Wow, Shakespeare sure is complicated,’ you haven’t done your job.” And by that measure, the cast scores an A. These performers, for all their unorthodoxies, make good sense of the text, and easily bring the audience along through the story. For the most part, their intensions are clear and there is certainly a sense of fun about the whole thing.
Several performances land with particular success. Frank Astran as Adam and Silvius gives not one but two great, committed and very different performances, getting well-deserved laughs for his utterly smitten, ecstatically tortured Silvius. The equally versatile Eliza Kiss is terrifically honest and subtle in her sensible, blue-collar take on Corin. And her ditzy, bikini-clad Audrey, along with Jake Brown’s really funny surf dude William, and Lourdes Uribe’s charmingly spacey, new age Amiens are highlights.
But the real stars of this production are our two leading ladies, Jenny Ashman (Rosalind) and Lovelle Liquigan (Celia), who, within the aforementioned style, bring such energetic fun and clarity to their roles that one could almost sign off on the production’s sometimes-reckless approach to the language.
Ashman’s portrayal possesses a quality that’s hard to fake, but a Rosalind requirement: immense likeability. And she achieves it with no apparent effort. This is a Rosalind we’d want to hang out with over Margaritas. And she’s funny. Ashman makes the clever comedic choice that Rosalind isn’t necessarily all that smooth a liar. So disguised as Ganymede, she’s charmingly unsure as she treads water, trying to answer Orlando’s verbal parries. Think of Jennifer Aniston doing Shakespeare and you’re on the right track.
Lovelle Liquigan’s brilliantly goofy performance as Celia is nothing short of a treat. She’s a latter-day Lily Tomlin on caffeine. Whether taking pictures of herself with her cell phone, whining of her weariness while riding on Touchstone’s back, or manically sorting through her credit cards in an attempt to buy food from the shepherds, she’s a natural, truthful comic actor who, along with partner in crime Ashman, lifts the whole production several notches higher.
The rest of the cast is generally enjoyable, interesting and entertaining, and there are plenty of good individual moments to go around.
What there isn’t is much in the way of justification for setting the play in LA, nor the realization of that choice. Yes, there are cell phones, modern costumes and one or two L.A. stereotypes, but nothing quite achieves the promise of Morris’ mission statement. Most of the characters are as vaguely defined as the location. The set, its two murals notwithstanding, is more limbo than LA, and even had the production succeeded in putting us there, ultimately the concept seems forced. This problem is perhaps best exemplified by the moment when Rosalind, gesturing to a painting on which, clearly written, are the words “Venice Beach,” says dryly, “Well, this is the forest of Arden.”
There are other poorly-thought-out directorial choices: the confusing addition of a clunky opening sequence of mimed encounters; the inserted scene in which a hoodie-clad gang attacks Orlando and Oliver (one of several awkwardly executed fight sequences). Scene breaks are abrupt and badly in need of music. Still, this is LA, where half-baked concepts often thrive. While this approach isn’t this reviewer’s cup of herbal tea, the show did hold my interest. And for the performances alone, you may find it well worth a look.
The Declan Adams Theatre’s As You Like It plays Saturdays at 8pm through June 20th at the Next Stage Theatre, 1523 North La Brea, Los Angeles, CA 90028. Admission is $15. Reservations: 213-926-2726.