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Whether they were written by one person or many, by lord or commoner, there remains one undeniable truth about the plays attributed to William Shakespeare: They attain the highest possible goals of playwriting. No other author has produced a body of work so consistently excellent, so relevant, so poignant, so enlightening, and still so entertaining. When a Shakespearean play is well-performed -- a feat not accomplished with nearly enough frequency in this country -- you sit in the audience awestruck, scarcely believing or understanding how a tale nearly 400 years old can offer such pertinent comments about current social conditions, contain so much dramatic action and suspense, and produce so many memorable characters. To achieve a similar effect in contemporary moviemaking, you would have to wed the subtle intellect of The Piano to the thrills of True Lies to the universal appeal and charm of Forrest Gump to the wry wit of The Player.
Therefore, you must rush (with children, if you have any) to the Florida Playwrights' Theatre, in Hollywood. In that tiny space (seating for about 30), in a basic black box with few props and no scenery, the company's new artistic director, Angela Thomas, has produced and directed an exquisite, flawless presentation of As You Like It, considered one of the Bard's best comedies. The cast fumbles slightly with the unfamiliar syntax in the beginning, rushing through wordy sentences without much feeling, but after less than ten minutes they admirably adjust and deliver performances worthy of the Royal Shakespeare Company. These actors clearly understand the play and its dialogue; as a result, you understand it, too. In short order, it becomes apparent that Shakespeare is not difficult to grasp and enjoy. His works are straightforward, wise, and witty after all these years.
Modern playwrights still can take lessons from this man, who wastes no time engaging the audience's attention. As You Like It begins with a violent argument between two brothers. Using a small amount of natural exposition, the playwright reveals that the hotheaded siblings are sons of a valiant (and recently deceased) knight named Sir Roland. Oliver, the older brother, rules the family estate with a harsh hand, denying younger brother Orlando any power or education. Meanwhile, in the more powerful circles at court, the reigning Duke Senior, a kind man, recently has been banished to the Forest of Arden by his evil younger brother, Frederick. Senior's daughter, the lovely and pure Rosalind, is allowed to stay in court only because Frederick's daughter, Celia, dearly loves her older cousin.
Various servants, courtiers, and a jester named Touchstone are introduced within the course of crisp dramatic action. Orlando wins a public match against Duke Frederick's court wrestler, Charles, and afterward Rosalind and Orlando fall in love. Oliver resents his brother's triumph and tries to kill him, forcing Orlando to flee into Arden. At the same time, Frederick, displeased with Rosalind's popularity among the masses, banishes her too. Everything just described happens within the play's first half hour. Nothing seems contrived or rushed, and every character is fleshed out with unique and realistic traits. Meanwhile, acute comments are made about family, age, love, power, and egomania. No wonder scholars and writers spend entire lives studying the art of Shakespeare's plays, trying to pinpoint exactly how he accomplishes all this so smoothly in such a short time.
And As You Like It is not merely a swashbuckling tale filled with adventure and romance; it's also a comedy elegantly tinged with irony and philosophy. For instance, everyone in court is terrified of being banished; much like today, life outside a walled castle appears treacherous. Supposedly, the dark forest of Arden, beyond the castle moat, is filled with rapists and thieves. Once in the forest, however, the play's nobler characters A Senior, Orlando, Rosalind A encounter kind souls like themselves and find a freedom in nature they never could have discovered within the stuffy confines, and amid the hypocrisy, of court politics.
Many people remember this play for the speech delivered by Duke Senior's cynical attending lord, Jacques: "All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players/They have their exits and their entrances/And one man in his time plays many parts/His acts being seven ages." This speech alone would warrant a Pulitzer. But in the same play Duke Senior makes the following comment about his exile: "And this our life exempt from public haunt/Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks/Sermons in stones, and good in everything/I would not change it." Hippies, survivalists, and new agers should note that, truly, nothing new exists under the sun.
Within the course of the play, Shakespeare laments how greed and selfishness have overtaken the court, obscuring the value of human friendship. He posits that only love can heal a country, that people tend to desire those things and relationships they cannot have; in short, he neatly sums up the human condition in any century. Long before M. Butterfly offered the theory that the perfect woman for a man would be another man dressed as a woman, Will S. gave us the same premise with a gender twist. When Rosalind dresses as a man to survive in the forest, the fickle and shrewish shepherdess Phoebe falls in love with her and concludes, "But, sure, he's proud/And yet his pride becomes him/He'll make a proper man."
Angela Thomas directs a cast of seventeen through frequent scene changes so seamlessly that you never notice a bit of overt staging. She's also obviously imparted a great deal of knowledge about the play to the cast. Each action and reaction appears spontaneous, natural. While every player performs admirably A both in individual roles and as a unit A the standouts are R.A. Smith as the evil Duke Frederick, Kerry Sensenbach as Jacques, the amusing Teressa Turiano as Phoebe, and, best of all, Desiree Sheridan as Rosalind. Sheridan's speeches trip effortlessly off her tongue, and she demonstrates a wide range of honest emotions, making her believable both as a man and a woman. Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's great women, a female possessed of self-confidence and wit, purity and tenderness. Sheridan vividly brings this potent goddess to life.
As Rosalind's lover, Orlando, Paul Thomas displays a tad too much hysteria; curiously, this still works, because Shakespeare regarded brash young men with raging hormones and lofty ideals as slightly ridiculous. In contrast to Sheridan's composure, Thomas's excesses provide subtle comedic touches. Thomas also has contributed to this production by writing lovely original music to suit Shakespeare's lyrics, and these ballads are sung hauntingly by another talented cast member, Christopher Railey, who plays Amiens, another lord attending the good Duke Senior.
To be honest, I was less than thrilled by the prospect of seeing As You Like It in a small, non-Equity house. To make matters worse, a lightning storm raged before the curtain rose, and several times during the show the lights flickered. But the cast never wavered, conducting themselves as consummate professionals and "using" the thunder, making it seem by their actions as if Shakespeare had written it into the play. I was humbled. Not only was I reminded that the Bard was not boring, that his plays were infinitely more enthralling than a shallow technofest like Miss Saigon, but also that small theaters in South Florida can produce excellent work, worthy of any stage in the world.