As You Like It by Ten Thousand Things Theater performing at Open Book

Aimee Bryant and Maggie Chestovich in As You Like It.

If ever a play were to test the light-free, minimalist, performer-centric technique employed by the unique Ten Thousand Things Theater, it would be William Shakespeare‘s opulent As You like It (TTT performing at Open Book, through March 11).  The shift from the wintry court to the lush and luscious Forest of Arden would require, one might assume, significant scenic effects: fresh costumes, a new lighting motif, intricately designed sets.

Here’s how TTT pulls it off: master-musician Peter Vitale plays, on his small keyboard, a simple theme – Arden music.  The actors bring out stainless steel leaf-like devices.  As they make their entrances, the performers pull the metal leaves aside and peer, frightened and entranced, into the Forest.

With this simple and effective device we find ourselves in the Forest, where lions nap under trees and where disguises work perfectly.  Where besotted lovers hang poems on trees, hillbilly shepherds pitch feverish woo, where the banished Duke listens patiently as the brilliantly melancholic Jacques orates, “All the world’s a stage,” and Amiens sings a slow bluesy “Under The Greenwood Tree.”

Gender roles blur in the Forest.  Orlando, madly in love with Rosalind, finds himself strangely attracted to Ganymede (Rosalind in disguise).  As You Like It is a giddy playground.

In this production a grand total of six (!) actors do a play normally performed by dozens: the exuberant Bradley Greenwald, the sweet and focused Randy Reyes, the lithe Kimberly Richardson, the astonishing (why have I never seen this man before?) Pearce Bunting, the solid yet evocative Aimee Bryant.  Only the spirited Maggie Chestovich as Rosalind plays a single character; everyone else quadruples, often within a single scene.  “Bear him away,” says the Duke (Greenwald), referring to Charles the now-unconscious wrestler (Greenwald).  As always, the theater is tiny (three rows).  The actors are close enough to touch and one is constantly aware of them prowling the fringes, preparing their entrances.

The multiple casting creates some thrilling effects.  Bunting plays the gloomy Jacques as well as the madcap Touchstone and this makes for some interesting connections.  Selflessly, Greenwald again (he did it in TTT’s My Fair Lady) dons oversized bosoms to play Audrey, the “country wench.”  Greenwald also plays both Dukes, the banisher and banishee.  Richardson plays the elderly and fading Adam and the young and shriekingly frisky Phoebe (I’ve never seen this character done like this, simultaneously nasty and sexy).  Bryant gorgeously underplays both Celia and Amiens.

I could go on.  Director Lear de Bessonet, in his second (I think) show for TTT, has created a perfect As You Like It.  There isn’t a false effect anywhere.

This As You Like It is stripped down and highly edited.  Does it require familiarity with Shakespeare’s original?  I thought about this at some length and finally decided that while it helps to have seen more straight-forward productions (or to have recently spent some time with the text) this is optional.  TTT performs at prisons, chemical dependency treatment centers, rest homes and for many this is their first Shakespeare.  As artistic director Michelle Hensley says, these people exhibit a real “hunger for language.”  This play plays.

As You like It is one of the best shows I’ve seen in a while.  It will sell out, so call the theater asap and make reservations.

For more info about John Olive, please go to his website.

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