One of the best theatergoing moments I ever had was at the now closed Empty Space Theater in Seattle, when the actor in the one-man play Underneath the Lintel somehow got the audience to sing a chorus of "We're Here Because We're Here." I wasn't quite sure how he did it, except that he had already sung it several times during the production and by that point it seemed only natural. I always hope to find a little of that experience again. Happily, one moment in Reduxion Theater Company's airy and solidly pleasing rendition of Shakespeare's As You Like It also elicits audience participation—by getting the audience to repeat a line with only gentle urging—even if this moment, unlike the one in Lintel, is light instead of laden with meaning. At this point, I knew we were in good hands.
Director Erin Anderson has corralled her cast into a unified world, divided into two settings and updated to the 1800s. One is in a French duchy, while the other is in the woods of Arden, where those exiled from the duchy flee to live amid shepherds and other country dwellers. At the play's beginning, we are told that Duke Frederick has banished his brother, Duke Senior. His niece, Rosalind (Sarah Schmitz), falls out of favor with Duke Frederick as well, and once banished, she decides to disguise herself as a man for protection while in exile.
Duke Frederick's daughter, Celia (Jessica Angleskhan), flees with Rosalind, her cousin, whom she loves dearly. Shortly before this, Rosalind falls in love with Orlando (Sean Logan), a young gentleman whose brother has denied him his inheritance. Orlando, too, is forced to run away to the woods, where the rest of the story plays out. Multiple romantic capers, identity mishaps, and reunions ensue.
A thoughtful use of double casting, such as using the same actor to play both dukes, suggests that the forest is a parallel world to the court. Though the characters in the woods have supposedly been banished, they do seem to have a pleasant time, picnicking and singing to pass the hours, while in the duke's court there is a capricious ruler and the threat of violence. In fact, this was one of the few productions I've seen where I really understood the need for a fight choreographer. A couple of the swordplay scenes are actually very funny, but the serious undercurrent of violence also serves to raise the stakes. After all, although the play's a comedy, the duke has banished Rosalind on the pain of death.
All of the performances from this solid ensemble—especially David Nelson as the fool, Touchstone—are well executed. Shakespeare's fools have some of the more difficult language to convey to a contemporary audience, but Nelson gives the lines as much clarity as possible while keeping their mirth. My only complaint is that Sarah Schmitz does speed through some of Rosalind's wordier speeches a little unclearly, but at other moments she proves herself a more than capable actress. It's particularly interesting to watch how she offers an emotional approach to the practical, clever Rosalind, as opposed to Jessica Angleskhan's more calculated turn as the less cunning Celia. And Sean Logan hits just the right note as Orlando—motivated not only by lovesickness but also by a sense of scorned entitlement.
Costume designer Jessa-Raye Court has clad the actors in costumes reminiscent of recent Jane Austen films. More than any of the show's other elements, the costumes' pastels and whites hold the play's pastoral world together. For different performances, the show rotates through different theaters within the Producers' Club, so letting the costumes (which are more movable than the set) set the production's easy, genuine tone was clever.
The set pieces—rustic patio furniture, a wooden bench around a tree from which a netting of leaves protrudes, even a swing—are easily moved, however. Though Anderson uses the space as best she can, making use of multiple exits and having the actors physically break the fourth wall at appropriate moments, such a well-mounted production really deserves a bigger stage than the one it had on opening night. It's just too small for the larger cast scenes, when there are more than a few actors onstage. At least one of them seemed to get mashed up next to the theater's fire extinguisher.
Still, the players do an admirable job of tackling the play through to the finish, especially considering the amount of time the script spends winding things down and tying up loose ends. This production is rigorous in its approach to the text—enough for the Shakespeare aficionado—and sufficiently welcoming for those who may be a little less familiar with the play.