Classical plays tend to be so overproduced these days that audiences can barely see past the velvet to the verse. As a case in point, last month Interact Theatre Company decorated the life out of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, turning the Bard’s sprightly comedy into a witlessly overupholstered, three-hour Edwardian marathon.
Well, “sometimes there’s God so quickly,” as a Southern bard was wont to say. Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (SSE)—a high-energy, 11-member troupe dedicated to blowing the cobwebs out of Elizabethan drama—has breezed into town with a stripped-for-action As You Like It that’s light enough on its sneakered feet to make viewers wonder why theaters even bother with designers.
Racing from a royal wrestling match to a quadruple wedding in the Forest of Arden with barely a pause for breath, let alone for set changes, the ensemble packs more laughter into 130 intermissionless minutes than Interact did in 190, and gets the nuances righter to boot. On alternate evenings the troupe is also performing a kinetic Julius Caesar and a vigorous Henry V, each as uncluttered as it is impassioned. All three are eminently worth catching.
SSE operates on the theory that—four centuries of theatrical innovations notwithstanding—the Bard’s plays work best when performed in the circumstances for which they were written: on a bare stage, in modified contemporary dress, by actors who play multiple roles. Eschewing theatrical frippery almost entirely, the company has brought to Gunston Theater II’s black-box auditorium just a few wooden cubes (that become logs, thrones, or biers as required) and some color-coded scarves and shirts to distinguish warring factions. Otherwise, the seven men and four women who make up the ensemble are essentially dressed alike, in khaki slacks and high-tops for comedy, basic black for warfare. A general wash of light, approximating the daylight by which Elizabethan audiences would have seen the plays, bathes both performers and patrons, allowing the actors to see whether they’re connecting with the audience and adjust their performances accordingly. In such circumstances, asides can be aimed at individuals, as one grinning 11-year-old discovered this weekend during the “whining schoolboy” section of As You Like It’s “seven ages of man” speech.
If all this sounds too “play’s-the-thing” for words, rest assured it works. And not just for the gender-switching, bumpkin-burlesquing, audience-involving hi-jinks of Rosalind (elfin Khristine Shields), Orlando (smitten Tony Tassa), and Touchstone (a decidedly Jim Carreylike Davis McCallum) in As You Like It. In past seasons, SSE’s aggressively youthful approach has seemed best suited to comedy, but the action-oriented dramas being assayed this time also benefit from the troupe’s directness and energy.
It doesn’t hurt that the title character in Henry V is about the same age as twentysomething actor Chris Kohn, who plays him with abiding skepticism and wit. When Kohn’s Henry puts the Bishop of Canterbury on the spot in the play’s opening scene, he’s as callow as any hotheaded class president who gets a charge out of cowing the administration. But as the actor brings Henry’s odd mix of idealism and pragmatism to bear on his blood-soaked journey to the fields of Agincourt, the young king sobers into the sort of leader for whom soldiers might well risk their lives and an impetuous French princess leap to give her hand in marriage. Offering token resistance are a milquetoast French King (Jolie Garrett) and a frat-boy Dauphin (Foster Davis).
That these two play a stern Caesar and a tormented Brutus in the troupe’s other serious drama, while As You Like It’s tongue-tied romantic swain turns up to deliver Antony’s eloquent funeral oration, offers a neat lesson in the virtues of that oft-praised, seldom practiced discipline, rotating repertory. Nightly change-ups can be counted on to keep performers on their toes, which has always been the attraction of playing rep for theater companies. But an unexpected bonus for SSE’s audiences lies in the connections that surface between disparate characters when the Bard’s plays are seen in close proximity.
I’m not referring here to the sort of parallels one notes at D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater when, say, Floyd King appears in a variety of comic roles over the course of a season. I’d always assumed that a subscriber’s experience there was vaguely comparable to the experience of Elizabethan audiences who would have seen the Globe’s home company in a regular rotation of his plays. But as patrons who opt to catch more than one of SSE’s productions during the company’s Arlington run (you can view the whole rep for just $30) will discover, watching actors shift roles from night to night can be quite different from seeing them play a succession of parts over time.
It might just be an accident of casting, for instance, but as tall, sandy-haired Foster Davis plays brutish one night, Brutus the next, and brute force the third, he can’t help turning Henry’s Dauphin, Caesar’s “noblest Roman,” and Like It’s dimwitted wrestler into complementary portraits of three very different ways of abusing power. This is not to suggest that Davis plays the characters similarly. He doesn’t. But he finds in each of them a facet of one central trait that was clearly put there by the author.
Something similar might be said of John Harrell’s cynically unscrupulous Pistol, cynically lean-and-hungry Cassius, and cynically dyspeptic Jaques. And if Khristine Shields plays a cautiously coquettish Rosalind at the matinee and a cautiously diplomatic French messenger in the evening, audiences can hardly be blamed for noting parallels between a woman’s place in the Elizabethan social hierarchy and a servant’s place in the royal court.
When not playing leads, SSE members are also double-, triple-, and even quadruple-cast within any given play, which offers patrons an opportunity to hear them shed accents at the drop of a troche. Is the level of inspiration uneven? Sure. But the cast members are all expert enough that there’s never a moment’s confusion about what’s being said or why. (I confess I’m less sure why a player blasts a few notes on a trumpet at one point, but since he gets a laugh, let’s let that go.)
The troupe’s ability to shift playing style from evening to evening (and even from season to season) without sacrificing the clarity that marks SSE’s work is impressive. Presumably it has something to do with adhering to a well-established company aesthetic and the fact that two of the three directors who staged this season’s rep are SSE founders. It also has to do with sheer talent and energy, of which there’s a helluva lot on display.CP