Review: AS YOU LIKE IT, Pittsburgh Playhouse Conservatory Theatre Company

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by Mike “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant.

 

Try It, You’ll Like It.

The actors in Point Park’s Conservatory Theater Company run rampant in the Forest of Arden in this season’s production of William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” It’s a delightful romp.

The play itself seems to be conceived on a whim. You could almost picture some merry fellow in Elizabethan times saying to the Bard, “Why do you always write tragedies, Will?” On this utterance Shakespeare rushed back to his ink and parchment and penned “As You Like It,” a play wherein no one dies, everyone gets a happy ending (even the most vile of villains). The title supports the hypothesis, “As YOU Like It,” as if he were challenging his audience. The play has plot contrivances that will strain your willing suspension of disbelief. Though, there are quite a few memorable lines, speeches and comic moments.

Even with the contrived plot, director John Amplas is making the most of it. He squeezes the lemons into the sweetest of lemonades. There’s lots of sugar in this production.

The set, designed by Lindsey B. Mayer, is a series of freshly-hewn wooden platforms. The set smells delightfully piney, like a lumber yard. When the lights dim, curlicues of green light spiral up and “grow” onto the wooden surfaces, in a stop-motion springtime. Animated deer frolic in the background. The trick of light and sound immediately immerses the audience into the show. We’re already rooting for Orlando (Mike Nicosia) when the lights come up on him.

This “As You Like It” teeters between the Elizabethan Age and the Age of Aquarius. The music cues are jaunty 60s tunes. The costumes are beautifully rendered by Michael Montgomery. They look like they were stolen from a Broadway production of “Hair.”

Orlando’s older brother Oliver (Tal Kroser) is being a douche. He’s usurped the land and treating his baby bro harshly. Meanwhile across the land, Duke Frederick (Perris Drew) had toppled his older brother Duke Senior (Stanley Graham) and banished him to the forest.

Things heat up when Duke Senior’s daughter Rosalind (Jennifer Arfsten) has a meet-cute moment with Orlando at a wrestling match.

The now love-struck Orlando returns home only to be told he must flee Oliver’s wrath. He is banished to the woods of Arden..

Meanwhile, Frederick grows weary of Rosalind’s presence and banishes her. There’s a lot of banishing going on here. Fred’s own daughter Celia (Hannah Morris) distraught by her father’s cruelty follows her dearest cousin Rosalind into banishment.

Fearing that they will be set upon by thieves and rapists, Rosalind disguises herself as a boy named Ganymede (the cup-bearer from Greek myth, male concubine of Zeus). Though her disguise is extremely thin, she fools all of the other characters in the play. Picture Lucy Ricardo dressed in a man’s clothes, but still retaining her eye shadow and lipstick. Ganymede and Aliena (Celia’s own thin disguise) take the court jester, Touchstone (Conner Gillooly) with them.

Doe-eyed Orlando pines for his love, pinning pine trees with putrid poetry. Ganymede wants to spend time with Orlando (for reasons obvious to the audience), and offers to instruct Orlando on how to fall out of love. Hint: It doesn’t take. Instead, Ganymede desperately wants to Orlando the truth, but, for some reason, has to wait till the last act to tell him.

Meanwhile, everyone in the forest is falling in love: Touchstone and Audrey (Angela D’Occhio), Silvius (Ricky Gee) for Phoebe (Doninique Brock); Phoebe for Ganymede (she doesn’t have a clue). Even Oliver’s heart turns from stone to butter at the sight of Aliena (ne: Celia).

The play ends with four weddings and no funerals. Even though early on, you’re hoping someone would have run a sword through Rosalind’s villainous uncle or Orlando’s spiteful brother.

As You Like It
Mike Nicosia, Hannah Morris, Jennifer Arfsten. Photo by Jeff Swensen.

The performances in the show are top notch. The leading man and his leading lady/boy are terrific. Nicosia is charismatic as Orlando. Arfsten does a masterful job. The play is a great showcase of Point Park’s talent pool.

Morris’s Celia/Aliena has impeccable comic timing. With tiny, crisply choreographed gestures she produced some laugh out loud moments.

If you like your comedy over-the-top; let me introduce you to Conner Gillooly’s Touchstone.

In this production, Touchstone is dressed like amalgam of bat-villains, circa ’66. The clown even brandishes an umbrella about like a weapon. Though he’s more Riddler than Penguin, as if channeling native Pittsburgher Frank Gorshin, owning every over-the-top, scenery-chewing moment he’s on stage. He sizzles with kinetic energy, a veritable whirling dervish.

Honorable mentions go to Toree Alexandre, Neiman Outlen (hilarious), Dominique Brock (beautiful and funny), Angela D’Occhio and Tal Kroser, and Stanley Graham; nearly everyone, actually.

George Bernard Shaw once criticized “As You Like It” as a “mere crowd pleaser.” However, pleasing a crowd is not necessarily a bad thing. The audience quickly rose to their feet with thunderous applause, a standing ovation without hesitation. It was a perfectly pleasing production with a cool set, clever actors and a terrific director. There’s a lot to like in “As You Like It.”

 

-MB.

 

 

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