Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
As You Like It
Hence, the Bard's romantic comedy As You Like It is a wonderful choice to kick off The Vortex Theatre's 4th annual summer Will Power Festival. It's full of whimsical characters, music, and many of those lyrical speeches and statements on life and love that come to mind when people wistfully inquire, "Do you know any Shakespeare?"
Director David Richard Jones sets the story in recent timeswhen exactly recently is left ambiguous. It's a time and place where Rosalind and Celia's 1990s frocks, Phoebe's saloon attire, and an Iron Maiden denim vest are allowed to intermingle with the young men sporting skinny jeans and Madame LeBeau's texting mid-conversation. I find this eclectic design-style (compliments to designers Jaime Pardo, Virginia Ludvik, and Claudia Mathes) tends to work quite well in Shakespearean comedies, especially since this inclusive feel is also incorporated into the gathering of different regional accents and various musical instruments that are found in this production.
The live music is a truly delightful addition, thanks to musical director and composer Casey Mraz. I love it when an ensemble breaks into exuberant song in Shakespeareunder one condition: the music and the musicians must be actually good. This capable ensemble of forest hippies, led by the soft and sweet vocals of a dreads-toting Amien (Rico Levya), exceeds expectations. Some of the most genuine moments in the play come out during the musical interludes. "Hey Ho the Holly" is all giddy enjoyment as the company members enchant each other and us in their successive revealing of new musical instruments and vocal abilities. When a crowd-pleasing Touchstone (Scott Bryan) whole-heartedly serenades his beloved backwoods Audrey (Katie Farmin), it is the first time I've ever believed in the possible sincerity of this mismatched romantic couple, and the story, and the sometimes strange nature of love itself, is all the more intriguing because of it.
Our two romantic leads both give successful performances: The long-limbed Harrison Sim provides a very likeable Orlando, with a nice balance of youthful sentimentality and cheeky testosterone, and Rosalind (played by Ashley Weingardt) hits her stride after intermission when she is allowed to be thoroughly tom-boy and in complete command of the stage during her "Love is merely a madness" scene. Their giddy chemistry as a couple is also quite believable. What really makes the show tick, however, is a team of well-played minor characters, and an enthusiastic ensemble to back it all up. Orlando's brother Oliver (Alan Littlehales) masterfully naturalizes the language, and his physicality is contemporary and real. Betty Moore's Celia is fittingly glib. Jessica Barkl gives us two completely different and completely over-the-top characters in the hip-swivelling Madame Lebeau and the uncouth Phoebe. And Thomas Pentecost as Jacques offers a well-timed rendition of that famous "All the world's a stage" speech every audience's ears inevitably perk up to hear.
Over the four years that the Vortex has been producing their Will Power Festivals, I have seen the majority of the plays produced. Of those, As You Like It is the most polished production to date and I can only look forward to more growth, artistry, and success as the Vortex continues what has now come to be a summer tradition for Albuquerque.
As You Like It continues at the Vortex until June 23rd. Show times are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $12-$18. To order tickets and for more information on the Will Power 4 Festival and the other two shows on the line-up for this summer, Measure for Measure and Macbeth, visit www.vortexabq.org.