by ANNA ROSENSWEIG
It’s easy to forget just how many common English expressions and turns of phrase come from Shakespeare’s plays. One of the pleasures of hearing his plays performed today is noticing these expressions and situating them in their Shakespearean contexts. Take As You Like It. We’re all familiar with the famous declaration “All the world’s a stage,” but how many of us are acquainted with the drama that it comes from? Ten Thousand Things does a superb job of bringing to life the plots and characters that surround this famous observation about the world’s inherent theatricality. Indeed, with a minimal set and an excellent cast, TTT demonstrates just how much acting and pretending goes on as we all try to make our way through life, navigating the ups and downs of love, heartbreak, triumph, and mortality.
“All the world’s a stage” is but one of many observations about the life’s work of pretending that As You Like It offers. The action begins at the court of Duke Frederick (Bradley Greenwald), and quickly shifts to a nearby forest, a shift which prompts reflection on the differences between courtly habits and country customs. What accounts for this change in venue? Duke Frederick is really into banishing people, and for many of those banished, their exile prompts them to try on new identities. The Duke banishes his niece Rosalind (Maggie Chestovich) after he grows concerned that she’ll oppose him in the name of her already exiled father (also Bradley Greenwald). When Rosalind flees the court, she takes Duke Frederick’s own daughter, Celia (Aimee Bryant), with her. Friends since childhood, the two decide to make their way through the forest in disguise. Rosalind pretends to be a young man, named Ganymede, and Celia hides her noble birth by taking the name Aliena. Their cross-dressing and name-changing set up a series of encounters in which the lines between playing a part and being oneself get significantly blurred.
The stakes of pretending, which are clearly a major theme in Shakespeare’s play, emerge with great nuance and depth in TTT’s production. The actors possess such a command of the language that they make iambic pentameter seem like the most casual of cadences, something that’s rare in contemporary performances of the Bard’s work. There’s the moment just after declaring that “All the world’s a stage” when Jacques (Pearce Bunting), another exiled member of the court, makes his famous speech about the stages of life that each person passes through. Bunting delivers this poignant speech in a way that makes it seem both fresh and familiar. Lear de Bessonet’s direction in this scene is deliberate without being overdrawn, a balance he achieves to excellent effect in many of the productions scenes.
While the entire cast excels, Kimberly Richardson steals the show. She plays Adam, a loyal servant nearing the end of his life; Lebeau, a delightfully French court messenger; and Phebe, a shepherdess involved in a hilarious love triangle. Richardson must often shift quickly between these characters, which all require distinct physical styling, given that they range in age, gender, and comportment. She portrays these characters so deftly that she disappears into each one, and even the rapid switches between them somehow seem perfectly in character.
Like Richardson, many of the other cast members are incredibly funny, including Bradley Greenwald, who plays not only a wrestler and both Dukes, but also a buxom woman from the country. Randy Reyes displays some subtle physical comedy as Orlando, Rosalind’s noble love interest, and Corin, a bespectacled old shepherd. Mary Anna Culligan’s inventive costuming prevents this double and triple casting from becoming confusing and further illustrates the play’s themes of make-believe and self-fashioning. Stephen Mohring’s bare-bones set also lends itself to this theme, as one structure easily transforms from a tree to a door, and back again. If I have one quibble with the production it’s that the background music by Peter Vitale at times felt too invasive, punctuating emotions and transitions that didn’t need punctuation. However, Vitale’s arrangements of the songs that are performed by the actors work quite well. The blues vibe these arrangements infuse into the production is unexpected but effective, and they showcase Aimee Bryant’s formidable voice.
It’s often thought that instances of theater within theater function as commentaries on the power theater itself to move, seduce, or convince. In other words, successful pretending within a play’s story also calls attention to the play’s ability to make us believe in its artifice. By so effectively staging how customs and identities are formed and tested through pretending, Ten Thousand Things proves once again that theater can be convincing, captivating, and highly amusing.
As You Like It, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Lear de Bessonet. February 16-March 11, 2012. Ten Thousand Things Theater Company, Open Book, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis. Tickets: $25. TTT also offers free public performances at various locations. See their web-site for more details: