‘As You Like It’: New season, new artistic director and new look at a Shakespeare classic

Photo credit: Kevin Berne
In Review

As You Like It

3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars - 'Sweet Stuff'
San Jose Repertory Theatre
Directed by Rick Lombardo
Starring Anna Bullard, James Carpenter, Jayne Deely, Blake Ellis, Steve Irish, Craig Marker, Cristi Miles, Sepideh Moafi, Andy Murray, Alexander Prather, Jonathan Shue, Adam Yazbeck
Plays to September 27, 2009
www.sjrep.com
Review by
Photo credit: Kevin Berne
Photo credit: Kevin Berne

San Jose Rep’s 2009-2010 season, which also marks Rick Lombardo’s inaugural year, takes a bold leap with a modern interpretation of William Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, ‘As You Like It.’

The start of the play heralds this new era with three dramatic screen panels which span the entire height of the stage, creating a dramatic start with blazing lights, bold red letters screaming ‘BANISHED” and Orlando’s (Blake Ellis) silhouette in front. The three panels which are used to project images and live video streaming throughout the play is made possible by a state-of-the-art system consisting of seven computers and five projectors.

The classic words of Shakespeare gets fresh new meaning as Lombardo places them against a set of contemporary situations and characters. The court in the modern world is a high-rise luxury condo complex set in the midst of a concrete urban jungle. The wrestling match between Orlando and Duke Frederick’s champion wrestler, Charles (Craig Marker), is a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) style match with glitzy championship belt and announcer with a shiny silver microphone. As the wrestling match begins, cameramen enter on stage to capture close-ups of the actors which are live streamed to the three large panels. The live video streaming projected on the screens help to amplify the action on stage and completely immerse the audience in the excitement of the fight.

This is definitely not your grandmother’s Shakespeare.

As You Like It: Charles (Craig Marker) and Orlando (Blake Ellis) fight for the honor while Duke Frederick's court cheers with fascination from behind in San Jose Repertory Theatre's production of As You Like It. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.
As You Like It: Charles (Craig Marker) and Orlando (Blake Ellis) fight for the honor while Duke Frederick's court cheers with fascination from behind in San Jose Repertory Theatre's production of As You Like It. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

Love is also portrayed in its modern form. We are introduced to Rosalind (Anna Bullard) and Celia (Cristi Miles) who bear many of the mannerisms and trappings of the characters a la High School Musical, including swooning and frequent snapping of photos with their cell phones.

As You Like It: Audrey (Sepideh Moafi), Celia (Cristi Miles) and Phebe (Jeanette Penley) joyfully welcome spring in San Jose Repertory Theatre's production of As You Like It. Photo credit: Kevin Berne
As You Like It: Audrey (Sepideh Moafi), Celia (Cristi Miles) and Phebe (Jeanette Penley) joyfully welcome spring in San Jose Repertory Theatre's production of As You Like It. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

The modern world with all its artificial preoccupations and drama is broken when Orlando, Rosalind and Celia must find refuge in the Forest of Arden. Orlando seeks refuge after being warned of a plot to murder him by his older brother Oliver (Adam Yazbeck). Rosalind, who is the daughter of the banished Duke Senior, is coincidentally thrown out of Duke Frederick home. Celia, daughter of Duke Frederick accompanies Rosalind not being able to bear losing her childhood friend.

Out in the Forest of Arden, court-life in an urban concrete jungle full of technological distractions gives way to beautiful country-side that is portrayed by scenic trees projected onto the three dramatic panels. Sepideh Moafi performs several beautiful solos in this part of the play which contrast with the noise and bustle of urban court life.

Being one of Shakespeare’s comedies, much laughter was garnered by Touchstone (Steve Irish), Audrey (Sepideh Moafi), Phoebe (Jeanette Penley) and Silvius (Craig Marker) playing country bumpkins in a comic chase for love and lust.

As You Like It: (l to r) Rosalind (Anna Bullard), Touchstone (Steve Irish) and Celia (Cristi Miles) comtemplate the meaning of 'for sworn' in San Jose Repertory Theatre's production of As You Like It. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.
As You Like It: (l to r) Rosalind (Anna Bullard), Touchstone (Steve Irish) and Celia (Cristi Miles) comtemplate the meaning of 'for sworn' in San Jose Repertory Theatre's production of As You Like It. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

One of the most dramatic scenes was the rendition of ‘All the World’s a Stage’ by Jacque (James Carpenter) who in his final line stating that man transitions to “mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” proves himself wrong by transforming to the second character that James plays, Old Adam. For loyal and kind Old Adam is a symbol of the substance of character beyond the physical deterioration of the body in old age.

As You Like It: Jacques (James Carpenter) describes an odd encounter in San Jose Repertory Theatre's production of As You Like It. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne
As You Like It: Jacques (James Carpenter) describes an odd encounter in San Jose Repertory Theatre's production of As You Like It. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Each element of the play is wonderfully executed. The acting is consistently strong, Sepideh Moafi’s solo numbers were breathtakingly beautiful and the artistic vision, a daring one on such a classic. As a comedy, the audience found humor in both Shakespeare’s classic lines and a couple of contemporary jabs at political figures as well.

However, woven together, the elements came together a little uneven. Admittedly, Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ is not one of my favorite comedies from the great playwright. I would have preferred ‘Twelfth Night’ or ‘Taming of the Shrew’ instead. With the incredible technological system of the three panels, perhaps one of Shakespeare’s tragedies would have pushed this marvel to its dramatic potential.

If you love ‘As You Like It’ you will be delighted in Lombardo’s daring, modern interpretation. If you are not a fan of this play, the strong acting, technological set marvels and great musical scores should keep you plenty entertained.

Clint says:

When the house lights dimmed and the 3-story video towers came to life awash in motion and the words “BANISHED”, I knew we had entered a new, modern era of theatre in San Jose.

And rightfully so. The times, they are a-changin’.

Rick Lombardo, the Rep’s new artistic director, foreshadowed the modern interpretation (re-imaging) that followed when he told the audience to send out Tweets using the Twitter hashcode #AYLI (but not during the show!). I love it. Contemporary theatre requires contemporary outreach; that means social media.

The opening is electric.

If U2 performed Shakespeare this is what it would look like.

The 30ft screens are an impressive feat. The wrestling match is an andrenaline pumping exhibition. Talk about getting a crowd engaged.

But the imagery that most seared my mind was the absolutely beautiful winter scene later in the first act when soprano Sepideh Moafi launches into glorious operatic song. Her voice fills the Rep against the shimmering blue and white glow of the video backdrop as snowflakes fall from above adding real-world texture. Jaw-dropping spectacle.

Courtyards become city skyscrapers. A rooftop scene is also monumental for its scope of vista. The video screens enable quick, silent and unobtrusive set changes.

To say I loved this imaging and staging would be an understatement.

The story, however, is another matter. I’m not a fan of Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ to begin with. Warring brothers. Dukes. Cross-dressing. Jesters in the forest. A frivolous ending. Yes, like Loni, you can call me provincial perhaps, but this is not a great Shakespeare story. In fact, it’s quite average, and overwrought. So, at least in my humble view, it was already an unfortunate strike against the proceedings.

However, comedy prevails in the second act. Steve Irish (last seen at the Rep in Spelling Bee, also endlessly humorous) takes center stage in uproarious, laugh-out-loud scenes. Golf club in hand, or sometimes even a sheep, he saunters, bobbles and belly laughs like a modern-day Hardy.

All the actors are solid, with at least two other standouts.

Anna Bullard zig-zags and bounces across the forest floor, getting slapped in the butt by everyone but me. As a man or woman it seems she’s the object of desire. Her line delivery, cadence, and emotion are convincing and effortless, even during prolonged monologue. Impressive.

James Carpenter lends a brooding tone, “I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs.” His deep facial lines and chiseled expression provide dramatic flair and weight to the follies happening around him.

In the end it’s a polarizing affair. Some will love this production—really love it. It’s grand spectacle, told with cutting-edge, modern direction.

Others will not get the occasionally jarring contemporary references (“Bill Clinton”, “Richard Nixon”), that while funny, perhaps detract from what is an otherwise intriguing ride.

The giant video screens are used brilliantly and mesh well, especially in the first act. Although I wonder if they might match the tone of a drama, like Hamlet, better.

We’re fortunate to have a fresh force on the theater scene here in the South Bay. The San Jose Rep has served us well in the past, and now under Rick Lombardo’s leadership we’re in for some unexpected thrills, and plenty of innovation. How appropriate for Silicon Valley!

Opens: September 4, 2009
Closes: September 27, 2009
Tickets: $35-$64

What Others Are Saying

San Jose Mercury News, Review: ‘As You Like It’ earns its laughs
Among the newcomers, Blake Ellis and Cristi Miles do very well by the roles of Orlando and Celia and Sepideh Moafi, an opera singer making her debut in a stage play, leaves a strong impression as both Amiens (a role in which she gets to sing) and as Audrey, the rustic who marries Touchstone.
All in all, “As You Like It” proves a fine debut by Lombardo and a strong season opener for the Rep.

San Francisco Chronicle, Review: ‘As You Like It’ – yes, you’ll like it
A few such missteps and the equal emphasis Lombardo gives every scene make the second act seem slow, though he and the cast capture the poignant heart of the comedy. It’s not quite a great “As You Like It,” but it’s a good one.

Real-Time Twitter Feed for ‘As You Like It’ @ SJ Rep

Read what others are saying on Twitter. Join in the conversation. Use hashcode #AYLI in your tweet to be included in the feed.

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