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Outside the Law

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The forest of Arden has always been a romantic, pastoral playground for the characters in William Shakespeare's As You Like It, but how often are they joined by Thomas Wolfe, J. Edgar Hoover, George Bush, and Oliver North?

While it's not entirely correct to say that both sets of characters are seamlessly joined in Irondale Ensemble Project's Outside the Law, there's certainly no lack of cleverness or vision in the way they've all been brought together. The revival of Irondale's acclaimed 1989 production, now playing at the TADA! Theatre, is a colorful and schizophrenic salute to (and gentle ribbing of) the confluence of classic literature and pop culture.

While one can't accuse the show of not doing everything possible to entertain, its often reckless attempts at connecting with the audience sometimes fall a bit flat. It's not that the script, which was written by Jim Niesen and the Irondale ensemble, lacks wit or strong construction - both are present in ample quantities. But they're not always applied in the most efficient or enervating ways.

The play really seems to be attempting too much. Mixing Shakespeare's characters with the real-life Robin Hood of the Depression, Pretty Boy Floyd, and modern politicos creates a volatile brew that must simmer at just the right temperature to sustain. Here, the balance is off; certain things give you a momentary jolt of humor - the presence of a dull, trigger-happy George Bush; Oprah Winfrey is played by a short white woman with a funny voice; J. Edgar Hoover is a shrewd anti-Communist propagandist - but don't come together into a complete play. Even a satirical play has to build. (For proof, check out the woefully one-note Embedded, still enshrined at The Public Theater.)

Most of the pleasure generated by Outside the Law comes from the creative ways the contemporary elements are worked into Shakespeare's plot. Charles, whom Orlando wrestles early in As You Like It, is actually Pretty Boy Floyd, recently laid off from his factory job; Wolfe inherits Jaques's famous "All the world's a stage" speech; Rosalind runs to the forest to escape the totalitarian world Hoover represents, and so on. Moments like these are beautifully integrated into the play.

They're often less effectively staged. Niesen, also the show's director, hides a fair amount of important early action upstage, behind two fences scenic designer Ken Rothchild has worked into the set. This makes watching the pre-Arden scenes somewhat frustrating, though these problems are mostly resolved once the characters move into the forest. Lighting designer Randy Glickman occasionally shrouds the stage in too much darkness, but is okay overall, and T. Michael Hall's costumes are fine.

Terry Greiss, a veteran of the original production of the show, is a hoot as Hoover, Michael-David Gordon is an affecting and somewhat enigmatic Pretty Boy Floyd, and Barbara Mackenzie-Wood's peculiar Winfrey is quite amusing. As the cast members are not identified in the program by the roles they play, it's difficult to single anyone else out, but Danny Bacher, Josh Bacher, Erin Biernard, Jack Lush, Celli Pitt, Damen Scranton, and Laura Wickens also handled their roles well throughout.

While Outside the Law is never a chore to sit through, it never takes you to the next level of comic euphoria - or, better yet, enlightenment - that most truly memorable plays can. It could benefit from a sharper comic edge, and more clarity in its script and staging, but if it lacks the rich philosophical point of view that characterized The Curate Shakespeare As You Like It, another recent riff on the same source material, Outside the Law succeeds as an inventive diversion.

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Irondale Ensemble Project
Outside the Law
Through May 29
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes with one intermission
TADA!, 15 West 28th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 718.488.9233