Regional Reviews: St. Louis
As You Like It
If you walk out shaking your head, it might be you, or more probably it might be the production. God and a thousand theatrical producers all know it's not Shakespeare to blame.
And now, nearly thirty years after my first head-shaking encounter with Rosalind, Orlando, and the rest, it's a wonderful thing to fall in love with this play at last.
This is a sprightly, genuine, bluegrass versionwith lots of music to really bring it to life. And the pleasant rustics are all of the Ozark variety. The speeches are set to bright (seemingly) simple tunes, including Jaques' famous reflection on the ages of man (and all the world's being a stage). This time, that soliloquy is spun into a great huge song, sung beautifully by a female fool: the powerfully voiced Rachel Hanks. It's a great new summit for an oration that can be dull to our ears, 400 years after the fact.
Composer and music director Jason Scoggins gets most of the credit for this show's boundless, driving appeal. On stage he's the bearded guitarist, but it's astounding (to a non-musician) to think he's also the one who has found all the heartstrings to set Shakespeare so touchingly and stirringly to music. He's an Alton, Illinois, native who most recently appeared with the band "The Foggy Memory Boys."
Like the 2006 revival of Company on Broadway, these actors enter with the instruments they will play on stage. And as always, there are the usual mix-ups on the battlefield of love. Conflict is heightened when the cross-dressed Rosalind (the splendidly straightforward Cara Barresi) spurns gawky Phebe (the impetuous and independent Mollie Amburgey). And she then gets to recite her own angry letter to Rosalind on stage (of course) in song: with foot-pounding rhythm that conjures a blood moon to match her rage.
It's entrancing to hear the sly, slightly mad style of country music flirt with, and ultimately ravish, the famous dialog. It doesn't hurt, either, that director Ellie Schwetye leads her cast into perfect moments of meaning and insight, nearly all the way through. Thanks to composer/music director Scoggins, the women's ringing voices often remind us of Emmylou Harris. And the men's voices suggest how a young Muddy Waters might have sounded.
Kevin Minor is bright and intimate and winning as Orlando, and Chris Ware is fine and down-to-earth as the wounded Silvius. (Orlando is wounded, too, but in a more literal sense, late in the action.) Katie Donnelly is meaningful and heartwarming as Rosalind's cousin Celia, after the former is banished to the forest by the duke.
Rachel Tibbetts is that scornful ruler, but later she dons a Western skirt and boots to lead some big numbers, as a defiant Opryland belter. Meanwhile, the always-excellent Will Bonfiglio follows Orlando along, wherever his heart may lead him. All of them work with a very light, emotionally delicate touch that somehow heightens the overall impact.
It became challenging for the little boy in front of me; and the lady behind me said afterward that she wished she'd brought a seat cushion. But otherwise, it's a great success.
Neatly trimmed down to 100 minutes, this show runs through February 13, 2016. Performances are at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive, off Skinker Blvd., immediately south of Wydown Blvd.For more information visit www.slightlyoff.org.