When William Shakespeare wrote a “romantic comedy,” as he understood the notion in his day, everybody onstage, of every class and station in society, ended up falling in love with somebody. Indeed, in plays like As You Like It, the dish would run away with the spoon had Mother Goose not beaten the Bard to the punch.
Still, it’s hard to imagine a more youthful, joyous and engaging blue sky without clouds than the production now being given a brief run by the tiny Brave Spirits Theatre in Alexandria’s even tinier Lab at Convergence. With Shakespeare’s happy (and endless) banter about love overflowing, we see a cast of young actors about the right age to be living what the guy was talking about.
And being a small, independent production – with even more “vaulting ambition” ahead for 2020 – this As You Like It is an exemplar of the attention the DC area’s innovative theater scene has been receiving in the media of late. That attention, and critical praise for this lovely, heartfelt minimalist production, are both well-deserved.
As with the better-known A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the plot of As You Like It would practically take longer to narrate than to watch. There are lots and lots of characters in mildly ridiculous circumstances, many played by the same small troupe of actors, as they were in Shakespeare’s day, and even the shepherds are unrelentingly witty. To Brave Spirits’ credit, all accents are American, offering a practical diversity of voices in our ears, instead of the now-standard tack of going highbrow British for nobles and something resembling Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins for everybody else down below.
The cast is ridiculously talented in speaking this roller-coaster of language while seeming to relish the story the Bard concocted. There are no weak links. Besides looking cool in his goatee, Ian Blackwell Rogers stands out as not one but two brothers, one of whom has conveniently banished the other, so they never appear onstage at the same time. One is good and the other is evil, the nice one with comrades and the not-nice one with henchmen (and even henchwomen). They… well, Rogers, clearly has a lot of fun zapping himself into contrasting characters before our very eyes.
Main characters show up in pairs, in fact: most notably Farrell Parker and Rebecca Speas doing remarkable work together and separately as cousins Rosalind and Celia, who run away from the bad duke’s household, changing their names and heading into the forest where all romance traditionally happens. Rosalind also pretends to be a man for the journey, but this is Shakespeare, so oh well. And Ben Peter makes a ruggedly handsome and virtuous Orlando while Brendan Edward Kennedy is his brother Oliver, whose virtue is questionable. Got all that?
Many other standouts move through one or more roles, especially Jared H. Graham as the fool named Touchstone, Charlie Cook as Orlando’s faithful if decrepit servant Adam, Anderson Wells as a lush- voiced courtier named Le Beau and Amber A. Gibson as a very demanding shepherdess named Phoebe. Megan Reichelt shines as a philosopher, who gets to explain exactly how “all the world’s a stage.” And we must not forget Mackenzie Larsen as yet another shepherdess, Audrey, who seems incredibly and humorously dumb while insisting she’s not – and then belts a bit of Broadway to prove it.
Following the Bard’s lead, Brave Spirits interrupts the action regularly with bits of song – indeed, the cast wanders out before the show and simply starts strumming a guitar and singing, blending a Cirque de Soleil conceit with the “pre-show” at Disney World. All this original music is the handiwork of Zach Roberts, and it makes an excellent contribution. Roberts plays keyboard throughout the evening, most of his songs sounding like folk music, forming like pop hits and doing the work of showtunes. They fill in the blanks, as all good Broadway numbers do, about what a character is thinking and feeling right now. Many of the melodies and harmonies are lovely, and we left the theater humming and wishing to hear more.
As director, Jessica Aimone keeps the action and diction clear throughout the evening. She also gets credit for the simple set in the long open space between two clumps of close-up audience, lit in an unobtrusive but effective way by Jason Aufdem-Brinke.
On May 1, Brave Spirits will start selling tickets to a program of Shakespeare’s eight plays about the War of the Roses marketed under the banner “History Is 2020.” With next year’s ambitious cycle of “history plays” – the “Henrys” alone should wear a troupe out – Brave Spirits will become the first professional American theater company to perform all in repertory. Here’s the company’s promise: “Brave Spirits will bring a distinctly American stamp to the plays, while also staging them in their signature actor-driven, intimate and dark style.”
Photos by Claire Kimball. Top: Ian Blackwell Rogers as Duke Senior. Bottom: Farrell Parker and Rebecca Speas as Rosalind and Celia,