A hip and collegiate “As You Like It”

This weekend the creative crew of the What You Will Shakespeare Company offers up a delightful tongue-in-cheek take on William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. While the leads seemed nervous, the supporting ensemble enrich the production by incorporating some new faces and marked growth in some old ones. The text has been rearranged to highlight the contrast between the Arden bohemians and the uptight court, all complemented with a considered soundtrack.

And like all the productions we have seen this semester from WYW, the troupe’s sense of space and direct application of a specific interpretive theme made for a fun and successful evening. In this production, the banished Duke Senior (John Jaeger) and his merry band of men are depicted as hipster rebels not willing to adhere to the Man, literally. The production makes good use of the very specific Midwestern hipster aesthetic of skinny jeans, converse high-tops, and flannel to play up the contrast between country and court, sycophant and free thinker.

As a point of contrast, Oliver (John Rynecki) sports a polo shirt with canvas shorts to match and a Winchester knot, while  Rosalind’s (Nora Ellis) Ganymede employs an ironically large knitted sweater with an ironically curled mustache to match. The choice suits the tenor of this “green play”: Duke Senior holds court in the woods, and his jovial nature and generous proffers of cannabis quickly assuages the lost, hungry, and angst-y Orlando (Eddy Jimenez).

Typically I do not tend to focus heavily on individual roles and actors unless it refers to some holistic effect in the production, but I feel the nature of this play and performance warrant a comment. Ellis and Jimenez had a lot of lines to swallow, and both executed thoughtful individual characterizations that only struggled when confronted with the need to work in tandem. In short, I was convinced of Orlando and Rosalind’s sense of self-hood, but not of their love for one another.

On the other hand, each supporting actor had a great sense of their characters and how they worked and responded to one another. Phebe (Emily Murdoch) and Silvius (Ryan Weber) never missed producing a laugh. Nathan Luft (Malvolio in an earlier production this season) brings a great sense of under-stated-ness and dry wit to his multiple parts (La Beau/Sir Oliver Martext/Jacques de Boys), but best yet is newcomer Sam Katz (Corin/Lord/Charles the Wrestler/William). His Antler-Wearing Phish-head Wisonsonian version of William was pricelessly funny in affect alone, and he has a great sense of his body and facial expressions to make the most difficult expository passages make meaning and farce.

This production’s strong sense of style–capitalizing on Midwestern ironic hipsters and their suburban counterparts–coupled with cohesive ensemble work makes this a production both thoughtful and pleasurable. This might even be a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of work in that its collegiate and regional referentiality works best (if only) with a young adult audience of the ‘Ots.

  • The What You Will Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like It plays at the University YMCA on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus until 12 March.
  • Coming up in WYW’s Spring Season at the University Place Christian Church:
    • John Dryden’s The Indian Emperor, April 8 & 9 at 8:00pm
    • William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, April 29 & 30 at 8:00pm

“Dr. Crippen,” the lovable murderer in the Garage

The Strange Tree Group’s most recent project, The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen, was purportedly inspired by a book that was inspired by an actual historical instance of technology and murder on the high seas. Beyond this, however, the facts of the Crippen Murders become hazy, and the paper trail has led to no concrete conclusions about what actually happened to the good doctor’s wife. In order to respond to this historical fuzziness, playwright Emily Schwartz instead presents with with three Crippens, three potential realities all in conversation with one another. These three selves–the public, the private, the fantasy–all work to write and rewrite Crippen’s life, implicitly posing the recurring question: What makes a good story?

Two of the ladies at the heart of Strange Tree’s Doctor Crippen, Kate Nawrocki (Cora) and Delia Baseman (Ethel).

The Steppenwolf Theatre Company (with its Pulitzers and Tonys) thought it was a good question, too. Good enough, in fact, to include Schwartz’s play as one of three in their 2011 Garage Rep season, which seeks to support and promote Chicago’s most innovative (and often under-funded) theatre companies in repertory. Likewise, Crippen been well received by critics and the public sporting positive reviews and packed houses. This repertory process is unique in that Crippen was essentially commissioned by Steppenwolf based on proposals submitted last spring, and then developed and work-shopped in close collaboration with the artistic staffs of Steppenwolf and the two other repertory companies, Sideshow and UrbanTheatre.

It seems this process worked its way into the play’s aura: Crippen is a play that ponders it’s own imagined audience as well as the conditions of storytelling. This sense of subtle meta-theatrics is a core part of the Strange Tree aesthetic, where the idea of playfulness and the play event seem of equal concern. Whatever you do, never walk in late. There is a half-hour pre-show where characters intermittently walk about the stage and engage with the crowd on some business relevant to the plot. In this case, the Women’s Guild interviewed audience members and compared them to a photo of the wanted fugitive. Also, the two love interests, Cora and Ethel, sing together a few old-timey tunes while one took a bath and the other attended secretarial work. With no intermission, and the ensemble works hard to prepare it’s audiences to be fully emerged in the fiction of the play.

The Doctor Himself (left to right): public (Stuart Ritter), private (Scott Cupper), fantastical (Matt Holzfeind).

Similarly, Strange Tree has a signature nouveau-Gothic design that is in full force, but hard to put a finger on. Visually, they borrow, adapt, and even over-expose lush Victorian imagery, wherein their stripped down and mobile sets always seem rich yet foreboding. Message of love and murder are spelled out with the spines of books on a painted bookshelf; a prescription for poison is scrawled on and twines around a painted flower vase. This sense of darkness is at times absurd, but avoids the distasteful edge of cynicism with its playfulness. Schwartz’s productions love to frolic on this line between the dire and the daft, and it is that sense of playfulness which is pleasurably unsettling in some way. For example, Funeral Wedding (The Alvin Play)–my personal favorite–considered abandoned children and what we are to do with the memories of the dead.

In a similar vein, Crippen considers what we should and perhaps shouldn’t do in the pursuit of love. This play toes the dire/daft line most closely in that we anticipate that the “fantasy” and “public” Crippens deserve and will be hung for the crime, but still imagine, to the very last instant, that “private” Crippen will escape with his love. Even if the progeny of Edward Gorey don’t particularly strike your fancy, this play, which questions whether we unequivocally benefit from following our desires, will.