Reviewed by George Basler
On his death bed, the famous actor Edmund Kean reportedly said, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”
That’s especially true with the comedies of William Shakespeare, which are filled with references and language that had Elizabethan audiences rolling in the aisles but are about as funny as an IRS audit to today’s theater-goers.
So credit goes to the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players for taking on the challenge with their latest production, As You Like It, which opened last week at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center in Owego. Unfortunately, despite the cast’s efforts and some clever directorial touches by Josh Sedelmeyer, the production never catches fire.
One can’t overstate the difficulties of doing a Shakespearean comedy. While the Bard’s great tragedies remain monumental and timeless, his comedies are tied more specifically to the Elizabethan era, with sensibilities and plot lines that are badly dated and alien to today’s audiences.
Some productions try to compensate by modernizing the plays with pop culture references. The Ti-Ahwaga production plays it straight, for the most part, but updates the time period to 1940s Hollywood.
Alas, the production never really bridges the 500-year-old gap between Shakespeare’s time and today. While the cast clearly and convincingly voices Shakespeare’s lines, laughs are few and far between. Attempts to augment the Bard’s language with some bits of physical comedy often fall flat.
The play begins at the court of Duke Frederick (a Hollywood mansion in the Ti-Ahwaga production), who has deposed his brother and forced him to take refuge in the nearby Forest of Arden. Rosalind, the good duke’s daughter, is forced to flee into the forest accompanied by Celia, her loyal cousin, and Touchstone, the court jester.
Also fleeing into the forest is Orlando, a winning young fellow whose older brother, Oliver, has put a contract out on him.
In the forest, love blooms between the play’s characters, notably between Rosalind, who has disguised herself as a man, and Orlando.
But the Ti-Ahwaga production undercuts the Rosalind-Orlando love affair with a strange casting decision. Instead of casting Orlando with a dashing actor (Laurence Olivier played the character in a movie version, for instance), the Ti-Ahwaga production casts an actress, Kristina Jackson, in the role.
Orlando’s brother also is played by an actress (Molly Benish), and the casting just doesn’t work, at least from my perspective. While Jackson skillfully voices Shakespeare’s lines, she’s never believable as a winning young fellow who would grab a girl’s heart.
As Rosalind, Laura Liburdi is spot-on with Shakespeare’s language, but her character remains undefined as she teaches Orlando the ways of love. Jess Brookes does a good job conveying Celia’s mischievous, slightly ditzy, personality, but her first-sight electricity with Oliver doesn’t register believably. Paul Shotwell gives a good effort as Touchstone, the court jester.
The play includes one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, the “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy delivered by Jaques, a world-weary misanthrope who comments cynically on the actions of the love-struck characters. David Hamme does a good job with this speech, but the character is muted and one-dimensional.
The production does have its moments. Justin Hall and Sydney Hill, who also acts in the play, have composed some nice incidental music. Especially good is a pretty ballad sung by Hill as the characters transition from the artificiality of Duke Frederick’s court to the naturalness of the Forest of Arden.
Sedelmeyer has his actors move about the audiences and even sit at tables, which is a nice touch. The beginning also is clever as the actors pick the roles they will play that night by drawing lots.
I especially liked the staging of the play’s ending, when the cast drops the Shakespeare and sings the tune “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” to the audience. The production could have used a little more irreverence such as this throughout.
Unfortunately, people who shy away from Shakespeare are unlikely to be converted by this production. This time the Ti-Ahwaga Players may have bitten off a little more than they can chew.
IF YOU GO: The remaining performances of As You Like It are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 23 at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center, 42 Delphine St., Owego. General admission is $18 (Friday admission for students with ID cards is $10; Sunday admission for ages 60 and over is $15). To reserve seats, call 687-2130 or go visit www.tiahwaga.com.