This is a strong production. Shakespeare at the community theater level is always a risk, usually combining a few able actors with more just learning the trade. This cast is strong from top to bottom, with only a couple of questionable casting decisions (Audrey’s too old – but she tells us that in her program bio – and Adam is too young). Otherwise, it is a pleasure to see young people attacking those Shakespearean speeches and sparring matches, and delivering them flawlessly while wrestling or squabbling with siblings. (One suggestion: lose the wrestling ring. It takes too long to set up and take down, it distracts, and it is unnecessary.)
The story is well-known. One duke overthrows his brother (again!) and banishes him to the forest. One brother dispossesses another and the younger absconds to the same forest. Before he goes he falls for the banished duke’s daughter, and she follows him (in man’s dress) accompanied by her cousin. Mistaken identities and anonymous wooing ensue, until all is brought right at the end with four separate couples marrying and (presumably) living happily ever after.
As often happens, the director (Jorden Cammack, with Sam Birge as student director) has chosen to set the play in modern times, proving, in this case, that Shakespeare’s lines can survive even a hillbilly accent. Even the dukes have them but not – understandably – Orlando, Rosalind, Celia, and Oliver. And not – inexplicably, William and Audrey. These accents only for a moment, but they are very effective for a bunch of Tennessee good ol’ boys loungin’ around in camo, poachin’ deer and poppin’ brews in the Chickasaw (aka Arden) Forest. (Another suggestion: lose the cell phones. They add nothing, and aren’t used enough to make them a point – as Chris Clark did with She Stoops to Conquer at UVU a couple of years ago.)
Geordan Briggs (Orlando) and Ana Lemke (Rosalind) generate lots of chemistry as the principle couple, perfect in their lines and timing. Rosalind is one of the strongest characters in all of Shakespeare, and while Lemke seemed a little passive in the opening scenes, once she becomes Ganymede, she shines. Megan Carpentier (Celia) is a worthy companion-in-exile (though if she could lower the pitch of her voice a major second, it would be a boon), while Touchstone (Colby Nash) plays the fool Touchstone to perfection. Chad Saunders plays Duke Frederick (inexplicably “Freda” in the program) as a cigar-chompin’ small-town banker or politician, throwing his (considerable) weight around in a most impressive manner. His brother, Duke Senior, is often played by the same actor, but in this case Todd Tharp leads the band of merry men in the forest, again, impressively.
The best-known scene from this play is the Seven Ages of Man, delivered by the melancholy Jaques (“Jacques” in the program –The Bard may have gotten it wrong, but who are we to correct him?), played by Darian Oliphant. Beautiful, as was Touchstone’s Seven Causes moment. As is so often the case with British theater (think Downton Abbey), the character actors make the show.
The Empress is often a difficult space to work in, but it accepts this play very well. Indeed, the upper level provides something like the classic Elizabethan state, and the director and her cast use it well here. Sound has often been a problem at the Empress, but on opening night, not a glitch was to be heard.
With either nine or ten plays (depending on how one counts) on the docket this year, The Empress, under Artistic Director Jake Andersen, seems to be engaged in an effort to move to a different level. Some of the earlier offerings have been somewhat uneven, reflecting in part the difficulty in attracting enough strong, adult auditioners. The quality of this production should make that task easier, perhaps putting The Empress on an upward spiral.
Shakespeare is problematic for community theater, and (I would think) particularly for a community like Magna. It is not what the local patrons are used to, and a couple even expressed their attitude by leaving after the first scene (of course they may have just remembered that they forgot to turn off the gas). But if you’re going to do Shakespeare, this is a good one to choose. Even the young can get into it, and when it is as well-done as this one is, those of us that have seen a dozen productions can come away satisfied.