ERED BANK – Anyone who doubts Two River Theater Company’s commitment to Red Bank and the surrounding community should try to get a ticket to one of the “As You Like It” student matinees.
They have been sold out for weeks and the kids lucky enough to hold tickets are in for a treat.
The anxieties of the play’s young characters have not altered a bit since Shakespeare, who knew everything about everything, wrote about them 400 years ago. Every student and every elder with a memory will see themselves in it.
More than 50 percent prose, “As You Like It” is highly accessible, and Two River’s staging is clear, expansive and very funny. Modern dress strips it of some visual appeal, but set largely in a forest, casual costuming is, I guess, appropriate (“casual” being a generous description).
Rosalind, smitten with winning-wrestler Orlando, is banished with her father, Duke Senior, to the Forest of Arden. There, she masquerades as a man and proceeds to tutor the deceived and equally love-struck Orlando in the art of courtship. Sundry other couples provide rustic comedy, until, as you might guess, there’s a happily-ever-after ending.
Simple, yes; but hardly simple-minded. “As You Like It” is layered with romance, music and wit from the sublime to the bawdy. Director Michael Sexton mines those elements with great success and also, aided by some wonderful performances, reveals a facet of the play that had eluded me until now.
The centerpiece might be Rosalind and Orlando’s intricate path to one another, but the play is also about girlfriends. Rosalind’s cousin, Celia, accompanies her into exile. “Pronounce that sentence now on me,” she tells her father, Duke Frederick, after he banishes Rosalind. “I cannot live out of her company.” There could not be a closer couple of gal pals than the heartwarming portrayals by Miriam A. Hyman (Rosalind) and Sara Topham (Celia).
As many productions as I’ve seen, I’ve never been as much aware of the deep empathy and emotional bond that the cousins share. BFFs for sure. (The girls in the student groups will love them.)
Could Ms. Hyman’s terrific impression of a hipster guy be too good? The pretense is as polished as if the character had rehearsed it. Orlando questions Ganymede’s accent as “something finer” than a forest dweller’s, but Hyman’s Ganymede speaks in the Elizabethan equivalent of neighborhood jargon, without a trace of Rosalind’s courtly origin. I missed sharing some of Rosalind’s insecurity over carrying off the deception. That noted, Hyman gets her/his laughs.
Jacob Fishel, switching gears from last season’s “Henry V,” is an appealing boyish Orlando, whose bad-guy brother, Oliver, cleaning up his act in time to find true love with Celia, is well played by Ben Diskant. Philip Goodwin is fine as both Dukes, roles that are often doubled. Brendan Titley and Myra Lucretia Taylor stand out as Rosalind’s faithful court clown Touchstone and his goatherder girlfriend Audrey.
Leighton Bryan turns in a gem as shepherdess Phoebe, who flips over Ganymede at first sight. A veritable Energizer Bunny, she’s just as girly-cute in a peasant skirt as she was grownup-glamorous last year in “Present Laughter’s” floor-length green scene-stealer. (Tilly Grimes costumed both shows.)
Duke Senior’s attending Lord Jacques (Jay-queeze: Brit, not French), is famously “melancholy,” but the imposing Geoffrey Owens’ Jacques is anything but pensive or sad. His “Seven Ages of Man” speech, delivered while strutting among the exiled Duke’s followers, is a showpiece. It’s more an oration than the rumination we’re used to, but no less worth hearing. So OK, a Jacques who’s not a downer.
Brett J. Banakis’ set design makes good use of the wide Two River stage, as does director Michael Sexton. The former’s stylized Arden-tree background leaves plenty of room for the latter’s actors to explore spatial as well as personal relations. One more note: the cast is interracial. Some of the characters are white, some black. In a good sense, it adds a dimension to the play. In an even better sense, you might not even notice.
“As You Like It,” through Feb. 16 at Two River Theater, Bridge Avenue, Red Bank. Performances are: 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Student matinees are on Thursday morning. For information and tickets call 732-345-1400 or visit www.tworivertheater.org.
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