Thursday, August 5, 2010

Late Thursday Afternoon in Prospect Park: Brave New World Repertory Theatre presents "As You Like It" at the Oriental Pavilion

We were in Prospect Park for the second afternoon in a row - yesterday we were trekking with our friend of over forty years Paul Schickler, who lives nearby and despite having half a dozen grandkids can walk a lot further and faster in the heat then we can - to see a vibrant and imaginative staged reading of As You Like It by Brave New World Repertory at the Oriental Pavilion (what we natives call the Concert Grove).

As You Like It, derided by some critics as shallower than Shakespeare's more profound comedies, has always seemed to us in some ways his most capacious work apart from the major tragedies.

It's got many contrasts in it, between youth and age, the life of the court and the forest, the sunny, optimistic idealism of Rosalind that finds its overwhelmed opposite in the gloomy, "realist" pessimism of Jaques, same-sex and opposite-sex passion, and the turn-on-a-dime ability of humans to change, as seen by the sudden conversion of the play's two villains into noble and generous characters.

All this comes through in the staged reading we saw, starting at 5 p.m. today. Seated around a center stage area in the elegant Oriental Pavilion (when we were last here, it was for the end of the Turkey Trot race on Thanksgiving morning) by the cast, wearing violet and lavender As You Like It/Brave New World Repertory T-shirts and accoutrements that suggested the roles they were playing.

We've attended staged readings before, and they're tricky, being not quite a fully-formed production of a play, but more than an actors-in-their-seats plain reading (at these around Manhattan in the 1980s, we were sometimes asked to read aloud the stage directions, a necessity when the characters don't move). But this version by producer/director Claire Beckman (the assistant director was Ezra Barnes; stage manager, Danielle Buccino) seemed to work perfectly and bring out the best in both actors and text.

It felt quite natural that actors sat among us (in black chairs rather than the white ones) when not onstage, or at other times, stood in character outside the pavilion - which, by the way, made for a terrific theater, with its long sightlines and cooling breezes.

The actors of Brave New World handled carrying their highlighted editions of the text with aplomb and eventually the paperbacks became mostly invisible, though as someone who for decades has taught Shakespeare in lit classes, staged readings for us have the virtue of stressing the primacy of the text.

And, boy, Shakespeare has some of his best-known lines here, from Jaques's "All the world's a stage" speech (but the play's spirit suggests that's not entirely true) leading to his "seven ages of man" - Kevin Hogan, who was a wonderful Jaques, looked straight at one of the kids in the first row when he discoursed upon "the whining schoolboy with his satchel" - ending with our final fate:
second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything
- but that too is subverted by the arrival of Adam, Orlando's ancient servant - played movingly by Eleanor Ruth - whose moral strength, loyalty and courage are unimpaired by age and infirmity.

Harold Bloom called Rosalind Shakespeare's most fully-formed female character, and she dominates the play. Franny Silverman made a wonderful Rosalind: witty, wise, resourceful, sunny, and so brilliant she outshines even her beloved Orlando (played here by Joe Salgo with a boyish, romantic earnestness). Rosalind also is funnier than the clown Touchstone (a sprightly John Edmond Morgan), who's accompanied her and her cousin Celia (a very charming and ardent Catherine Mancuso) into the Arden Forest, where almost all of the action takes place.

This pastoral patch of Prospect Park (no, we didn't mean for all the alliteration, but we'll let it go) was, uh, perfect for staging Shakespeare's most pastoral comedy. The strains of composer Amanda Gookin's cello (we saw her also use what looked like a foot tambourine at one point) and Dave Hall's guitar and truly lovely voice as Lord Amiens on Shakespeare's songs were a key to making this staged reading come alive for the audience.

Regretfully, we missed Brave New World Repertory's Tempest on the Coney Island boardwalk last year (here's a video from the production), so we're very glad we got the opportunity to see this As You Like It on a beautiful but warm late afternoon turned early evening.

This Ditmas Park-based company, all of whose members live in the borough, has this as its mission statement:
Brave New World Repertory Theatre draws from Brooklyn's rich artistic community to create dynamic and engaging theatre on the Brooklyn side of the bridge. Founded by a group of local theatre professionals, the company produces classic and neglected works, as well as new works by its members. Brave New World Repertory Theatre provides its actors, directors, designers, playwrights and stage managers the opportunity to work in and for their own community.

We enjoyed this a lot; there were obviously a lot of people working behind the scenes, as well as the company members selling T-shirts and refreshments at today's performance. Other actors we didn't mention before but who did admirable work today were a very fine William Brenner in the dual ducal roles of Duke Frederick and Duke Senior; Scott Voloshin as Oliver; and Karl Greenberg as Le Beau and Silvius, who played off neatly with Cynthia Babak as Silvius's love, the shepherdess Phebe who prefers the beautiful "boy" Ganymede (actually Rosalind in disguise).

Also, Nixon Cesar as the caring wrestler Charles and the Second Lord at the end; Christine Siracusa, who as the country wench Audrey, was a delight and sparked John Edmond Morgan's most sparkling moments as Touchstone;

and Stephen Sheffer, also funny as the clueless bumpkin William (funny that Shakespeare took his mother's maiden name for Arden Forest and his own given name for the play's dopiest character).

We also have to mention that Eleanor Ruth, in addition to her stellar work as Adam, like William Brenner in particular, used her voice and bearing beautifully to play another character, in her case two, the old shepherd Corin and the country cleric Martext. Shepherdesses were played by Dilya Kurbonova, Kimber-Lee Alston and Christina Offley.

Although the play very definitely rejects the false romanticism of courtly love - the male-disguised Rosalind tells Orlando that "Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love" - it ends with the celebration of four weddings, and then the epilogue, strangely, with Rosalind (again, Franny Silverman was pitch-perfect) - or the actor playing her (and it was a boy back in the day) stepping out of character as if to assure the Elizabethan audience that the heroine's daring subversion of society's highly constrained role for women was just a performance.

As You Like It is famously the first citation for the phrase "too much of a good thing." We're sure lots of people who've seen good performances of the play have used wordplay with the phrase, so we won't. Brave New World Repertory was really good today in Prospect Park, though.

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