According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

As You Like It

One of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, As You Like It takes a lighthearted look on several serious issues: banishment, inheritance, social status, etc. Though this production relies too heavily on the cheap jokes to balance the surface romance with the underlying drama, the pastoral set design and warm, spring-like lighting even out the main story. Frog and Peach Theater Company invites you to the dreamy Forest of Arden, to one of the year’s best and most memorable weddings: their antics are a sheer pleasure.

Camryn Grimes and Harry Oram/Photo by Jim Baldassare

Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis

Tired of his daughter’s girlish escapades, the prideful Duke Frederick (Joe Corey) tells Celia (Monica Jones) that her behavior must change in order to uphold the family name. Otherwise, he will have to forbid her to see his niece, her cousin and best friend Rosalind (Camryn Grimes). So begins Shakespeare’s classic tale, As You Like It: women disguised as men, a series of misaligned romances, and a slew of idiosyncratic and affable leads. The devastated girls decide to run from this ultimatum, hiding in the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind’s father Duke Senior (also played by Joe Corey) has been banished. Rosalind has agreed to disguise herself by donning men’s hunting garb, with Celia pretending to be her sister, and the clown Touchstone (Lenny Ciotti) from Duke Frederick’s court, in tow. With this outline set firmly in place by director Lynnea Benson and executed by a strong cast, misguided emotions and mischief ensue as the play continues on in the depths of the forest.

Ms. Benson, the co-founder and artistic director of Frog & Peach Theatre Company, has an impressive working knowledge of the script and the characters, and she uses it to keep the show under two and a half hours. She also grabs the audience’s attention by engaging with it—the cast often speaks directly to those in the first few rows. No quick laughs are missed, and even the most subtle or offhand comment is emphasized, making the whole thing a bit more screwball than necessary. This competes with the drama instead of complementing it, so the serious scenarios are forced and over-the-top, instead of softly laying the groundwork for the final sentimental union.

In such a quick-witted play (double identities, not to mention double-casting), the actors mostly understand the importance of every word they utter, especially the supporting characters. They gleefully play off each other in arguments comprised entirely of sexual innuendoes or recite their tongue-in-cheek lines with absolute deadpan. In comparison, the two lead actors, Camryn Grimes and Harry Oram, who plays Orlando, sound over-rehearsed. Especially considering their monologues, they play up the drama and project their voices in an unnatural way, so that each word comes out too fast and too forced. The emotional dialogue surrounding the play’s dramatic romantic setups, which occurs in almost every scene, is breathless, emotional, and quite harried. Grimes, for example, is so focused on portraying Rosalind’s constant wittiness that she speeds through her lines when speaking to or about her beloved Orlando. Similarly, Oram does a grand job portraying Orlando as an innocent boy in love for the first time, but he exaggerates his infatuation to the point of near-bragging, focusing solely on his desires, his emotions. Instead of being helplessly adorable, he comes across as self-centered, making little effort to create believable chemistry with Grimes or passionately interact with her in scenes together. Luckily for the supporting cast, this weak precedence allows them to shine.

As the foppish and dirty-minded clown Touchstone, Lenny Ciotti is priceless. His powerful, animated performance carries the show to the extent that scenes which do not include him are dull and uneventful. When his object of lust Audrey (Amy Frances Quint) enters the play later on, together they add delicious color to the play. Quint is coy and coquettish while still being common and salacious, and Ciotti responds to her in pleading fashion, even using his jester’s staff to graphically portray his “growing” physical desire for her. As Celia, Monica Jones is a young, impetuous, and true hopeless romantic that wins over the audience from the beginning. Her previous experience with Shakespeare has turned her into a true pleasure to watch onstage: she uncannily balances all of Celia’s capricious qualities with a deliberate articulation. No matter how tongue-twisting or fast-paced, she gives a believable yet passionate performance that leaves no room of error.

Frog & Peach Theatre Company’s production of As You Like It could not have come at a better time. The jubilant subject matter, matched with a quirky and adorable cast, is the perfect transitional piece as we see a long, bitter winter slowly thaw into promising, pleasant weather. At a time when spring is on everyone’s mind, the play’s set and lighting truly manifest a romantic, warm and welcoming Forest of Arden. P. Costello Caldwell has painted a lush backdrop full of greens and blues that help to counter the space’s surrounding red velvet curtains and cathedral ceilings. Lighting designer Jak Prince has created a brightness that gives the sense of a real garden with strong, natural sunlight. His soft fade-outs for scene changes and at the close of the first act combined with the attending lords who sing and play guitar onstage as interlude music, give the whole evening a fantasy feel and compensate for any choppiness in the actors’ performances. A wonderful story that has been retold in a timeless manner with minimal flaws, you will like As You Like It. After all, nothing beats a spring wedding.

As You Like It (2 hours 30 minutes; one ten-minute intermission) The West End Theater (263 West 86th Street) Tickets: $18
Performances (through May 10th): Thurs.-Sats. 7:30pm; Suns. 3pm

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