Have you ever been to a play that just plain worked? Every actor fits his character; every scene change is seamless; every direction taken to the point; every point an element of surprise, and every scene enchanting. Have you ever been to a play where everything is As You Like It?
This artistic team is extraordinary. David Lee Cuthbert (Media and Scenic Designer) creates a technological extravaganza with a backdrop of three floor-to-ceiling screens that project a living, breathing city as well as the changing state of nature, running the gamut of autumn to spring. These screens could so easily be distracting from both the actors and the play, but the integration is as perfectly natural as when seasons change. The projections seem to spill into the stage, which is covered at times with leaves or snow falling from above. The realism makes you believe you can actually experience the scent of spring or autumn or the chill of winter. There are city lights and streaming stock quotes and there are the vibrant colors of spring buds or falling snow. Cuthbert also overtakes the stage when he enhances the WWF cage match between Orlando and Charles by projecting it behind them from exciting angles, engulfing the stage in a combustion of larger than life excitement. Fight choreographer Dave Maier packs one hell of a punch, giving us ringside seats to the fight of the century, and Haddon Givens Kime accompanies this production with exciting, inspirational, and playful original music and sound design. B. Modern’s costume design is modern yet imaginative, colorful and suitable to the character, and seemingly based on the concept of layers that cover up and ultimately reveal the truth.
The doubling and tripling of characters that goes on in this production is consistently amazing. Never is there a moment of confusion as to who plays whom, and never is there a moment’s thought that, say, the brilliant James Carpenter is better at playing Adam versus Jaques or Jaques versus Adam. As Adam, Carpenter is honorable, gracious, dignified and wise. As the melancholic lord, Jaques, Carpenter is the dark and discontented outsider who somehow achieves our respect because he chooses to be on the outside. Carpenter also somehow erases a decade or so from his age between Adam and Jaques, perhaps because he looks like Bram Stoker’s eternal Dracula (the young version) less the top hat and glasses. Carpenter offers the most sublime moment in the play as he delivers the famous monologue, “All the world’s a stage…” He begins the speech as Jaques, but as the words unfold and his clothing drops to the stage floor, Carpenter literally transforms into Adam before our eyes. It’s as though providence intervenes.
Anna Bullard delivers a strong and vibrant performance with just the right amount of channeled testosterone for her take on Ganymede, balanced with just the right amount of natural beauty and sharp wit to embrace Rosalind and to entice the love struck Orlando, played here by Blake Ellis. A bit of Natalie Wood can be seen in Bullard, both in appearance and in her impassioned acting style. Cristi Miles is adorable as Rosalind’s cousin Celia, bouncing around the stage and squealing with glee. Unless she’s wearing the wrong shoes, this Celia brings an air of youthful and playful optimism to the stage. Bullard and Miles together are the epitome of BFF, while Bullard and Ellis are charming and endearing lovers at first sight.
Comedy runs high and wonderfully low in As You Like It. Craig Marker is spot on as both Charles the meathead wrestler and Silvius the cowboy shepherd who is afflicted by the wiles of the gaudy fashion nightmare, Phebe, played by Jeanette Penley. Sepideh Moafi is spectacular as the simple and vulgar Audrey, although it’s nearly impossible to imagine this beauty to be “ill-favored” or one “that no man else will” take. Moafi also takes the role of Amiens (a lord waiting upon the banished Duke Senior) to a whole new level, incorporating her virtue as an opera soprano into the banished Duke’s band of merry musical wanderers. Andy Murray plays both the banished Duke Senior and the BlackBerry-connected tough-guy banisher, Duke Frederick.
While Bullard carries her load of high comedy and quick wit, Steve Irish trumps all in his one of a kind portrayal of Touchstone the clown. Irish is big and bawdy and a master of imitations. In clown nose, derby, cigarette in one hand, highball in another, and a penchant for golf, Irish thrusts forward his high-powered libido when he finishes his jokes. His booming voice goes from Nixon to Clinton to Schwarzenegger; from Irish ruffian to German to showing much chutzpah as a yenta, and I do believe he even channeled the Wizard of Oz. These, mind you, name but a few of the fantastic characters within the great and powerful Irish. He is truly magical.
This is one heck of an inaugural production for director Rick Lombardo. Lombardo, who was Artistic Director of the New Repertory Theatre in the greater Boston area before coming to serve as Artistic Director at San Jose Rep in 2008, asks his audience a simple question: “Ever consider leaving it all behind?” In As You Like It, Shakespeare draws a distinct line between life at court and living life in the natural world of the Forest Arden. Lombardo’s line is not so pronounced; rather, it’s realistic and invites the audience to learn from and embrace the positives in each realm. You’ll find it’s quite easy to leave it all behind for this show. You’ll also find that when you do get back to it, this production gives you something quite splendid to take with you.