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As You Like It — Quintessence Theatre Group

untitled (112)Quintessence Theatre’s “As You Like It” has a Maytime playfulness about it that keeps it fresh and sprightly in its several scenes of comparative love, especially those that involve Rosalind posing as a farmer, Ganymede, and training the hero, Orlando, how to attract, woo, and be a good partner for a woman.

While director Alexander Burns never lets the sunny tone of his production lapse for long, he leaves rooms for well-considered philosophical moments from Jaques, portrayed with droll wit and eager intellect by the remarkable James-Patrick Davis, who uses deadpan and a lecturer’s approach to deliver his lines in a way that makes them sound thrillingly original and new even to hearers who can recite “The Seven Ages of Man” and other passages along with him. Burns also provides for serious moments, such as Duke Fredrick’s banishment of his niece from his court, the same Duke’s dismissal from his sight of two sons of his one-time detractor, Sir Rowland de Boys, and the exiled Duke, Senior’s, discussion with courtiers who accompanied him to the Forest of Arden when his brother, Fredrick, usurped his authority.

The constant merriment and generally high energy of the production may be a tradeoff for certain measure of depth and intensity that Burns’s “As You Like It” does not manage, but the forfeit is worth it to have Burns and his cast humanize Shakespeare’s wonderful characters and provide a smart, jolly time that is tinged where it matters with genuine sentiment and that can elicit a tear to two as savvy comedy gives way to a prettily romantic brace of weddings.

Burns cast his production with a keen eye. Davis will remain forever memorable for his astute playing of the curious Jaques who finds fascination in the arcane facets of life. Alexander Harvey, as Rosalind, and Andrew Betz, as Celia, are two of the most charming and natural women you will see on a stage. Each has an insouciance and grace that produce the effect of refined femininity, and each can vie with Davis in providing wit and a naturally brainy aura to both  their characters and “As You Like It.”

Harvey becomes truly androgynous when Rosalind sheds her woman’s finery for the simple T-shirt and jeans of a 16th century farmer who dresses like his modern counterpart. He conveys enough masculinity to make his Ganymede, the name Rosalind chooses for her male alter ego, credible to anyone who isn’t looking too closely for beards or other telltale signs of manhood, yet retains enough of Rosalind’s easy feminine nonchalance to make it plausible when Rosalind blushes or reacts with pleasure at something Orlando says or does to underscore his love. Harvey plays both of his parts, stately flirtatious Rosalind, and gangly love-motivated Ganymede, well. Twice, while portraying Ganymede, the country gentleman’s instruction in wooing moves Alan Brincks’s Orlando so much, he kisses the youth, and both times Harvey’s Ganymede looks at Orlando in wonder, as if to say, “What are you doing, you scamp? Have you forgotten I’m a man like you, playing for your sake at being a woman?” while Brincks stands there looking sheepishly satisfied and moonstruck.

It’s good work all around. Entertaining, touching, and funny simultaneously.

If I was Andrew Betz, I don’t think I’d ever take off Celia’s wig and perfect country button-down denim dress with a wide belt cinching a tiny waist once I saw myself in a mirror.

I have no idea what Betz looks like as a male, but he plays a fetching woman, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an “As You Like It” in which Celia was so prominent and became integral to Shakespeare’s play beyond the scenes he wrote for her as a sparring partner and sounding board for Rosalind.

In the best way, Betz never stops acting. His listens intently and responds to what he hears. His eyes are always attentive, his face always expressing a reaction to what is going on around Celia, especially when she witnesses Rosalind’s tutoring of Orlando. You read a lot about what is happening to various characters in Celia’s musings and smiles.

This is a Celia that is always amused, and Betz is an actor that is always amusing. He is also a performer so comfortable with Celia’s abundant femininity, he shows no signs of self-consciousness and few signs of being man playing a woman at all. If it wasn’t for the muscle development you see when Betz wears a sleeveless pink gown in the first act of “As You Like It,” you might never guess Burns opted for an all-male cast or that the person playing Celia is a man.

Harvey and Betz have more in common than looking totally right and totally womanly in their wigs and gowns. They both present their lines beautifully. You truly enjoy their byplay and the way they can make even one of Shakespeare’s more complex jests sound delightfully conversational and clear.

untitled (111)Harvey and Betz anchor the production. Burns’s “As You Like It” increases markedly in quality when they make their first entrance, and the pair provides high points whenever they appear throughout the show. They create the freshness and bounty of spirit I write about at the beginning of this review.

Harvey makes Alan Brincks’s performance stronger and more focused. At the top of the show, when Orlando is complaining to his family’s loyal long-time servant, Adam, about the mean treatment he gets from his older brother, Oliver, who keeps him in poverty and withholds the legacy their father bequeathed him, Brincks sounds more as if he is declaiming that having a conversation. His rhythms and volume are more like a recitation, a decent one, but a recitation rather than spontaneous, heartfelt words.

In  a pair of wrestling scenes, Brincks defines his character better, but his words suddenly match his physicality when he meets Rosalind and Celia before they are all forced to leave court, and Brincks begins to commune with his fellow characters with more purpose. His scenes with Harvey show a particular give and take that sharpens Brincks’s approach in passages with other characters. His early impression as one content to just deliver lines with some personality gives way to a full performance in which you see the ardor, bravery, integrity, and loyalty of Orlando. In some scenes with Rosalind, you also see his naivety and a sweet desire to be tutored in the finer points of man-woman relationships.

As usual, Shakespeare, that first psychologist who has observed mankind so perceptively, he can ascribe and describe any behavior and back it up with physical traits and with lines people in given situations are likely to say, paints an accurate picture of the differences between men and women. These distinctions between the genders are often noted by Rosalind, who speaks as Ganymede, and in her own name, chides herself for being so aware and so critical of the habits and tactics of her sex.

Shakespeare doesn’t only describe the traits of men and women, primarily of men and women in love. He depicts different types of love — courtly love, pastoral love, and even, in the case of Touchstone and Audrey, masochistic love — by having several couples illustrate the course their romance and will to marry takes. His portraits are knowing and often roguishly conceived, especially the pining of a shepherd, Silvius, for an ill-tempered, dismissive shrew, Phoebe, who falls in love at first sight with Ganymede. Love at first sight, such as Oliver and Celia’s, is contrasted with love that has to be earned, as in the paces Rosalind, as Ganymede, puts Orlando through and with love that is unrequited, such as the feeling Silvius has for the fickle Phoebe or the spurning another country lad, William, endures when he is enamored of Audrey but run off by the equally smitten Touchstone.

Burns makes these parallel love stories funny and human while making sure one romance comments on another. Ryan Walter, who wears the girth he sports as man with voluptuous allure when breasts are added to his ample frame and he’s squeezed into Lollobrigida-type dresses as Audrey, makes a rather Rubensesque country maiden who is proud of her assets and knows how to use them, sort of like Saraghina, the lusty earth woman who sings “Be Italian” in Maury Yeston’s musical, “Nine.”

Ashton Carter also scores as the peasant, Phoebe, who scorns Silvius in ways that hurt his feelings and wound his ego, but who treats every utterance, even chastising, insulting comments, from Ganymede as if it is a gift from Aphrodite.

Music and sport are an important part of Burns’s production. He depicts the band that followed Duke Senior to Arden as contented creatures who sing as they hunt their venison and forage for fruits and vegetables but who prefer to spend their time in contemplative, and sometimes, competitive conversation. All seek the company of Davis’s jaded, jaundiced Jacques for his keen insight. All live in the manner of the Duke, who is mild-mannered, scholarly, and philosophical.

Shakespeare sounds like an early environmentalist when he has Jacques lecturing on killing animals, eating meat, defiling nature, and depleting the population of the forest creatures who more naturally claim Arden as their habitat than Duke Senior’s legion does. He also has someone answer Jacques to say the Duke’s men hunt only what they need for their sustenance and no more. Issues and points of discussion apparently don’t change much in four centuries.

Shakespeare’s songs, usually tossed away or performed as folk ditties, are presented with gusto by Lee Cortopassi as the courtier, Amiens, who belts out tunes, often accompanying himself on a guitar to David Cope’s original music, as if he is composing them extemporaneously to comment on a situation, usually one involving love or sorrow, like a 16th century Tim Hardin. Or Tom Lehrer.

Burns also shuns intermissions in his three-hour presentation of “As You Like It,” opting instead for four “interludes” of varying lengths, during which members of the company, in character, do a kind of music hall, performing contemporary or stylized numbers that pertain slightly to the condition of their characters.

The peace and leisure of life away from the formality and treachery at court appeals to the exiles who have been forced to trade its amenities for Arden, and it is this thoughtful contentment that pervades Burns’s staging.

Only Jaques is restless, yet he is so intellectually curious, he eagerly seeks out people who he thinks can entertain or enlighten him with their adventures, ideas, or beliefs. The others take to Arden as more of a refuge than a place of banishment and come to regard it as a haven where they can pass convivial days and find sport of many kinds, including in speaking to one another about nature and the traits of humankind. Jaques is a more like someone in large laboratory, constantly making discoveries and pondering over their philosophic meaning.

Shakespeare shows us enough of the court for us to see the difference. The usurping Duke Fredrick is not so much a tyrant as a man of temper who can also indulge in paranoia and the long holding of a grudge.

Afraid his niece is more popular than his daughter, and worried that people might feel favorably about the exiled Duke Senior because of their high regard for Rosalind, he casts her from his duchy on threat of death, not realizing Celia will flee with her. Impressed by Orlando’s defeat of his wrestler, Fredrick originally congratulates the brave lad but turns cold and brutish when he finds out Orlando in the son of a former detractor and proceeds to cheat him of his prize money before insisting Orlando too leave the duchy.

Orlando’s brother, Oliver, is anything but fraternal towards his younger sibling who he treats and caparisons like a peasant.

Arden, in contrast to the court, is a paradise where the politics and backbiting meanness of the town do not encroach. All come to prefer it that way.

Orlando and Oliver do physical battle before Orlando answers the challenge of Fredrick’s wrestler, Charles. These fight scenes, choreographed by Ian Rose, are quite muscular in nature and entertain while seeming realistic. In general, Burns has provided a complete picture of the region in France where his characters dwell. He keeps his production loose and informal. Paced well and structured nicely, the show seems to proceed organically. Scenes flow easily into one another, and characters distinguish themselves well.

Stephen Novelli gives the early scenes of Burns’s production a patina of elegance with his wonderful portrayal of Adam, the octogenarian servant, who bristles when his master, Oliver, refers to him as a dog and spurns him like one. Novelli also provides tender moments as he goes weary during his and Orlando’s escape to Arden.

Paul Hebron has his Jekyll and Hyde act down pat as the two dukes. The scowling rage and constant look of indigestion Hebron affects to play Fredrick softens into gentle and friendly camaraderie, a kind of scoutmaster’s benevolence, when he is asked to play Duke Senior.

Connor Hammond is excellent whether playing the fawning courtier, Le Beau, who cannot resist touching Orlando’s bare chest while congratulating him for his wrestling prowess, or the dull but smitten shepherd, Silvius.

Matt Tallman is a fierce Oliver who makes you dislike him on sight, even before you are sure whether Oliver or Orlando is the wrongdoer among the brothers. His transition to filial affection after he is cast from court by Fredrick is both plausible and well acted.

From the wrestling scene on, Alan Brincks grows into an adorable Orlando, always carrying a wistful look of love in his eyes and face and manfully living up to every task anyone sets for him, including providing food for Adam and fighting a lion.

Sean Close gives a broader performance than most of his castmates and seems a little out of touch with the tone of Burns’s production as Touchstone. He is best in the scenes when he is matching wits with Jaques and when he is wooing or defending his prior claim to the shepherdess, Phoebe.

Carlo Campbell is fine in the sequence in which his character, Charles, the court wrestler, and Orlando have their high-stakes match.

Jane Casenove has a good eye for dressing Rosalind and Celia, both in their court gowns and their country attire. I also liked the carelessly chosen plaid jacket she chose for Jaques.

“As You Like It” runs in repertory with Quintessence’s”Richard II” through Sunday, November 16 , at the Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 22, 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 24 and Saturday, Oct. 25, 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 1. Tickets range from $34 to $27, with discounts for seniors and students, and can be obtained by calling 866-811-4111 or by visiting www.quintessencetheatre.org.

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