Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Wednesday Night in Harlem: Pulse Ensemble Theatre presents "As You Like It" at Riverbank State Park

It was another great night in Harlem as we took in the Pulse Ensemble Theatre's winningly charming production of As You Like It, directed by Alexa Kelly, and staged in a perfect venue for Arden Forest, the gorgeous amphitheater of Riverbank State Park, with the Hudson River as a backdrop. We enjoyed it every bit as much as we did their excellent Macbeth here last summer.

As we wrote last year when we saw a staged reading of As You Like It, it's derided by some critics as shallower than Shakespeare's more profound comedies, but 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.

The Pulse Ensemble Theatre production highlighted all those contrasts, and did it a highly entertaining way, with tons of laughs and physical hijinks, but also the profound but witty sadness in the wonderful "seven ages of man" speech of Jaques and the ambiguity (is it bitterly sarcastic or stoically comforting?) of Duke Senior's "sweet are the uses of adversity" lines.

We loved the way the play was updated to the America of the last thirty or so years, with the usurper Duke Frederick played as a kind of cross between Hugh Hefner, World Wrestling Entertainment's Vince McMahon and Tony Soprano and his overthrown brother, Duke Senior (both played with startling difference and sublime bits of business by Elliott Mayer) and his followers are reminiscent of '60s hippies and the hare krishna devotees we used to encounter at UF in Gainesville.

Stella Kammel was utterly delightful and plucky as Rosalind and her rustic-boy-in-disguise form of Ganymede. Gamin-like and playful, she was matched by Iris McQuillan-Grace as her good-hearted cousin Celia, who from the word go is clearly less of a style-obsessed airhead than she makes herself out to be. They have great chemistry, especially in their scenes with the clown Touchstone, played with athletic and sly shenanigans by Joe Raik.

As the noble but somewhat nerdy Orlando, perhaps Shakespeare's most mooning male romantic lead, Josh Odsess-Rubin was a good match for the witty Rosalind, especially in her own male form. We liked the way the two passionate seeming male-on-male kisses were handled, and as Orlando's scheming, evil brother Oliver, Vincent Bagnall as a harried yuppie-on-the-make makes his quick transition from envious creep to likable lover credible.

Brian Richardson, an accomplished actor who blew us away last year with his portrayal of Macbeth, did wonders as Jaques, brilliantly turning him into some supple, foppish, mordant mix of André Leon Talley and Bill T. Jones.

The Arden Forest rustics were played as if they were an eclectic mix of backwoods wiseguys, sullen neighborhood lowlifes, dopey jocks or trailer-trash comics. They were all wonderful: Stuart Rudin (Corin), Michael Gilpin (Sylvius), Cherish Monique Duke (Phebe), and Emily McGowan (Audrey), who did stuff with bubble gum and hot pants that we had thought impossible.

The other actors, many in multiple roles, were also fine -- especially Shawn Williams as the wrestler Charles (another nice bit of business was when Duke Frederick's lords/henchmen/"associates" came to the audience and took our bets on the Charles/Orlando pro wrestling match), Jacob Heimer as LeBeau and Amiens in court and country, and Bill Galarno, as the selfless but somewhat ornery old servant Adam. The costume designer, Bob Miller, created memorable clothes for every character.

The amphitheater at Riverbank State Park never seemed more magical. This is the 22nd year Pulse Ensemble Theatre has been around, and their eighth season of Harlem Summer Shakespeare under the direction of Alexa Kelly and her wonderful associates, who are to be congratulated on the consistent quality of their theatrical work.

As a real reviewer -- which we are not -- Ron Cohen in Backstage summed it up, "It all adds up to a show that's fun to watch, even on a hot, humid night relieved only now and then by a breeze off the river." And on a non-humid, non-rainy night like tonight, it felt perfect. We are very grateful we got to see their As You Like It tonight.

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