The best running gag in Don Nigro's The Curate Shakespeare As You Like It is that the source play's most famous speech is never successfully delivered.
Of course, Nigro is counting on there not being anyone unfamiliar with with Jaques's Act II, Scene VII philosophizing that begins, "All the world's a stage." While he's using that speech's continuous interruption as but one in a series of highly humorous theatre send-ups, he's also doing something far more subversive: forcing you to listen to it in a new way. That alone is enough to recommend a trip to the Pelican Studio Theatre, where this wacky and ruminative play is appearing through May 1, but it does have even more on offer.
Specifically, an undying love for theatre and the way it relates to life, how one "acts" onstage and off. The play is strongest when Nigro sticks closely to this idea, presenting and slowly expanding his examination of how Jaques's worldview affects his characters, apparently a touring troupe of under-rehearsed and under-equipped actors.
Shakespeare's tale of mistaken identities emerging in the pastoral forest of Arden after coming to a head in the city is rife with material for such exploration, and Nigro mines much of it well. Five of his seven characters are directly lifted from As You Like It: Rosalind (Candice Holdorf), Celia (Sarah Sutel), William (Christopher Yeatts), Amiens (Brian J. Carter), and Audrey (Josephine Cashman). Another, played by Todd Butera, is billed only as Clown, and plays a variety of comic roles, while the seventh is the title's Curate, played by Timothy Roselle as equal parts elderly character actor, director, Shakespeare, and benevolent God.
Yet, to return to Jaques's speech, "one man in his time plays many parts." All the actors appear in more than one role, ostensibly because their group is temporarily shorthanded, but Nigro's real intention is more insidious: to cast light on the manner in which we present different facades to different people. Two examples: Nervous supporting player William finds himself thrust into the romantic lead of Orlando, and ditzy Audrey must step in as Rosalind when the actual Rosalind loses her mind. How will these two people handle tasks for which, they are not ideally suited?
In investigating this, only two of Nigro's dramatic devices falter: the injection of too much meta-comedy into the proceedings, frequently of the Noises Off or Waiting for Guffman variety, and his tendency to have the Curate explain every detail of the play's complex universe of ideas. These suggest something of a lack of faith in the audience to react to the show's statements on its own terms.
With Christopher Thomasson as director, Nigro has nothing to worry about: the characters' multiple identities are precisely delineated and Shakespeare's story comes through clearly and creatively. Costume designer Gentry Farley significantly contributes to this success; Casey Smith's (intentionally) limited and low-budget sets and Carolyn Sarkis's lights, which never apparently ever brighten or dim, don't make the same impression.
The actors also shouldn't be sold short: Holdorf's vacant yet perceptive Rosalind is one of surprising depth; Sutel's argumentative Celia is excellently judged, modern, yet timeless; Butera's Clown is an ideal embodiment of lustful abandon; and Brian J. Carter's Amiens is an intriguing study of the boundary between passionate desire and desperation. The Curate is more difficult, and saddled with some of Nigro's least organic dialogue, though Roselle is able to maintain himself well throughout.
Most impressive are Yeatts and Cashman, whose transformations from unprepared simpletons into fully rounded, even Shakespearean, characters are object lessons in subtlety. As William and Audrey increase in confidence, it becomes obvious that their characters are the central figures in Nigro's tale of personal discovery and self-improvement. When faced with the necessity of returning to the roles they originated, the sense of heartbreak is palpable, and their triumphs over personal adversity are equally significant to them and to us.
That's Nigro's underlying message: the capability for creating and achieving rests in all of us, just waiting to be unlocked. Each of us is the fool, the lover, the youth, the old man, and so on, and sometimes the choice of which to act out is one within the realm of our ability to make. This message is inherent in the original As You Like It, yes, but few productions make it as clear and meaningful as The Curate Shakespeare does.
Oberon Theatre Ensemble