Into Arden with Match: Lit's AS YOU LIKE IT

Caitlyn McCain as Rosalind and Caroline Rose Leon as Orlando in Match: Lit's As You Like It. 
Photos by Sandra Mhlongo, Costumes by Michael Piatkowski
As You Like It is a deceptively simple play.  On the surface, it's the story of various nobles who are banished or escape to the Forest of Arden wherein numerous love stories play out, with a number of songs thrown in.  It features one of Shakespeare's smartest and wittiest heroines, is populated almost entirely by clownish characters, and is in many ways much ado about literally nothing.

The most successful versions of this play tend to dispose of the first act quickly, and focus the attention on the pastoral romp.  Such a one is Match: Lit's As You Like It.

Directed by Laurel Andersen and Assistant Directed by Regina Renee Russell, Match: Lit continues to produce imaginative interpretations of Shakespeare's work.  With gorgeous costumes by Michael Piatkowski, bringing us to a stark European literally white-washed world for the court, only to give way to natural, flowing fabrics and bright colors for Arden, we're immediately immersed in a world of contrasts.  Kristin Sgarro - serving triple duty as Phebe/LeBeau on-stage, the Artistic Director of Match: Lit behind the scenes, and the show's composer - underscores some of the most elating and heart-rending scenes with her soulful music, picked out on guitar, violin, and mandolin by various members of the cast over the course of the evening.  In fact, the use of music and movement to tell the story may be director Andersen's strongest work.  There's one moment when two characters lift out a green sheet with a triumphant strain of music, and I swear there was magic in that instant.

The cast is peopled with some of NYC independent theatre's favorite Shakespeareans, and that combined with the work of Text Coach, Rudi Utter (while simultaneously delivering a beautiful Jacques), means that the verbal work is dexterous, with some thought-provoking decisions sprinkled in from the directing team.

In particular, Andersen & Co. tackled some of the thorny romantic problems of the play in this post #MeToo era by gender flipping or subtle massaging of the text.  In this iteration, for example, the possibly incel nature of Silvius' unrequited love for Phebe is undercut by actors' Joe Raik and Kristin Sgarro's reading of their text which reveals that this isn't so much a romance of unwanted pursuit, but rather a conflicted romance with Phebe unsure of what she actually wants from a partner.  Similarly, by making Touchstone a woman, here played with glee by Anna Stacy, and Audrey a man, here played by the heartfelt Daniel Cabrera, instead of a romance of predation of a male courtier upon an unsuspecting shepherdess, we're given a full character arc for both characters, wherein the courtier learns courtship.

The two main couples: Rosalind and Orlando, and their kindred, Celia and Oliver, are all played by women as women, with happy romances for each couple.  As Rosalind, Caitlyn McCain has the unenviable task of playing the comedic foil, or straight woman, for everyone else's pastoral clowns, but she manages the text well.  As her cousin Celia, Sheleah Harris throws herself into the fun of mugging for the audience at Rosalind's shenanigans.  Victoria M. Fragnito as Oliver (last seen as Lady Capulet in Match: Lit's Romeo and Juliet) gives a nuanced villain-turned-lover, only frustrating the audience that there isn't more text as Oliver for her to perform.

The stand-out of the entire cast, though, is Caroline Rose Leon as Orlando (last seen as Mercutio is Lady Shake's Romeo and Juliet).  Leon is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors to watch, and her dexterity with the language, the clarity of her imagination, along with the ease of her body language, and the vulnerability of her romance is riveting to watch.  Keep an eye out for this actor and her work.

As You Like It is an ensemble piece, though, and credit must be given to the whole company.  Theo McKenna absolutely delights as both Duke Senior, and Duke Frederick, as well as Adam and Oliver Martext, changing their body language and cadence for each character, and bringing light to the stage every time they appeared.  Joe Raik gives us the range of his clown through to his most tender lover in his roles as Charles the Wrestler and Silvius.  (Special shout-out to Peter Hargarten's fight choreography which gives us a delightful wrestling match.)  Anna Stacy as Touchstone, Kristin Sgarro as Phebe, and Daniel Cabrera as Audrey provide silliness as well as sentiment.  Lauren Wainwright as the musician Amiens greets us brightly with her violin, but then proves a perfect comic foil in her portrayal of Willa.  While Rudi Utter delivers a clear and clean "Seven Ages of Man" which is then followed up by one of the most poignant moments in the whole show (too good to spoil here, although those who saw Hamlet Isn't Dead's As You Like It might notice resonances).

There are a few places where the story lags a little bit, although this has as much to do with Shakespeare's fractured writing as anything.  Generally though, anything that gets too dour is perked up between the direction and the music.  Seating is in a deep thrust, although the view is probably best from the "proscenium" seats, for those who prefer to have an unobstructed view.

There are a few more chances to see this springtime show in the last chill of winter.  Get thee to Arden!  Recommended.

As You Like It runs through Feb. 23, 2020 at the Access Theatre in NYC.


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