As You Like It

mpc-as-you-likeBy Philip Pearce

ADVANCED PUBLICITY says the new MPC Theatre Company version of As You Like It is “Shakespeare Rebooted.” It illustrates that message with a hand clutching a smart phone and offering the Bard and his popular comedy a thumbs up. It’s “Like It” the way you like a likeable posting on Facebook. The audience, a majority of them under 30, crowded into the Morgan Stock Theater for Friday’s opening to test the claim. They brought electronic messaging, a lot of noise, a sprinkling of opening night bouquets and an air of excited expectation. MPC Drama seemed to have something new in mind.

And new it is. The new Company and Department Head David Kersnar and design team Doug Ridgeway, Gloria C. Mattos Hughes and Laura Coté have dusted off the 400-year-old text and mounted a visually exciting, fast-paced reading that tells Shakespeare’s story as a shrewdly relevant critique of the high speed fiber optic age we live in. Kersnar has recognized that, like so many of today’s millennials, the play’s motley crew of characters start off in individualist bubbles of anxiety and need to move on into mutuality and sharing and cooperation. Before the play starts, actors stroll onto the apron and, ignoring one another, silently talk, text, and game on their separate phones.

And once drawn through the velvet curtain into the story, they find themselves caught up in a world of petty vitriolic political squabbling where Sherry Kefalas’ benign and charming Duke Senior is deposed by her raging, ambitious younger brother, Frederick, played loony and unpredictable by Thomas Tribolet. There are vicious sibling rivalries as Roland Shorter’s baffled poetic Orlando finds himself banished by his tyrannical sister Oliver (Persis Tomingas). Meanwhile Gracie Balistreri’s lovely and exuberant Rosalind has to get out of town simply because the psychotic Frederick hated her late father. It’s a dog eat dog society, with no evidence of recourse for Rosalind apart from helpful friends like Natara Denga’s attractive Celia and a faithful court clown named Touchstone, played with high comic energy by Chris McElwain.

The prevailing isolation is beautifully summed up in the sequence of a wrestling match between hero Orlando and a highly touted champion named Charles, played brawny and dim-witted by Chimay Skinner. Comes the match, better staged than I’ve ever before seen it, it’s not Orlando himself who faces Charles, it’s Damien Nguyen as his masked electronic avatar. Orlando just mans his phone and goes through all the wrestling holds in isolation and then shares a congratulatory hi-five with the victorious Nguyen. Even Rosalind’s adoring response to Orlando’s success is offered at a distance via smartphone, first in texts and finally in spoken words as their attraction gets stronger.

But the crass banishment of the sympathetic characters becomes their collective salvation. The traditional Forest of Arden is reached by passing like Alice through the looking glass, through a door-sized cell phone screen. Once on the other side, the hopeful travelers come into a spectacularly rendered computerland based, according to a lobby display, on figures and equipment from a Swedish sandbox computer game. Its trees, furniture and buildings, like those of the game, are fitted together from colored cubes which the ever active ensemble rebuild and reset as the action progresses and the refugees learn to relate face to face with each other and with the various rural eccentrics they encounter in this brave new world.

Much of the appeal of this production stems from Kersnar’s ability to make each important sequence visually exciting and meaningful. I particularly liked the argument about court versus country between Touchstone and the bucolic farm-bred Corin. Kersnar has the two men crouch in spotlights at opposite ends of the forestage, languidly dipping fishing rods into a stream. Chris McElwain has many ups and a few downs as the sneaky but lovable city guy joker, but he is at his very best in this slow paced and almost dreamy exchange with Malakai Howard’s equally effective Corin.

That slow pace is a pleasant change from an overall approach that is probably wise in speeding the action and editing out a lot of the puzzling comic wordplay. But that very slickness adds to the main weakness of this engaging show. The student cast are committed and enthusiastic. They show an admirable grasp of the basic elements of their assigned roles. They are right on the mark when it comes to the strenuous physical action of dances created, songs composed  and martial arts exercises choreographed by the impressive Max Fabian. But what too often gets lost in all the rush is a consistently clear idea of what the characters are saying and thinking. It’s less a matter of volume than of tone and emphasis. To offer this tricky 16th century language in a modern shopping mall intonation, to glide blithely past important key words tends to confuse and blur the meaning of what is being said. There are notable exceptions. Kefalas is crystal clear as the banished Duke, and Balistreri is not only a delightful Rosalind but somehow knows how to whip along briskly and yet clearly project what she is saying.

The company as a whole do redeem themselves in the final moments with an intriguing full-cast choral recitation of a non-Shakespearean rhyme focused on the theme of put away your phone and meet people face to face. Which they proceed to do, with a musical sprint through the audience, collecting recruits in a breakneck line dance that revives the Elizabethan custom of ending comedy performances with a session of loud and raucous musical footwork.

If you’ve seen As You Like It before and have a rough idea of what’s being said, there’s only another weekend to enjoy this delightful production.  If the play’s brand new to you, you may have moments when you miss out on some of the glories of Shakespeare’s language, but the company dress it in such vigorous and appealing action that it’s still well worth a ticket.