Last night, while hordes of jersey-clad out-of-towners (and locals alike) descended upon downtown Phoenix (our backyard) for the NFL Experience, my boyfriend and I snuck off to Mesa for a little classic Shakespeare. My good friend, Alex Oliver (or “Red” to us), who was in the show, had invited us to Southwest Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of As You Like It months ago, and when we picked our date to see it, Super Bowl was the furthest thing from our mind.As it turns out, I’m happy the two events coincided—because I will gladly use any excuse to escape downtown Phoenix right now.And quite frankly, I think my little party at the Mesa Arts Center was better than the supposed biggest party in the country. (I fully expect to have footballs thrown at my head for making that statement. Bring it!) Let me explain…
I feel like a horrible Arizona native, because I’ll admit that before last night, I hadn’t seen a production by Southwest Shakespeare Company. We won’t even talk about how much of a fail that is because I’m a literary nerd, writer, and theater chick. (Hey, we all have our faults, right?)
Well. I. Was. Floored. And reminded why the Bard is the ultimate storyteller.
For those of you who haven’t read or seen As You Like It, it’s a classic Shakespearean comedy in the pastoral tradition, chock full of love at first sight, feisty female characters, baudy sex jokes, mistaken identities, and the juxtaposition of regimented, courtly life with a freeing, unregulated existence amidst Mother Nature. It’s also the play that boasts the famous, “All the world’s a stage and the men and women merely players” monologue.
And Southwest Shakespeare Company’s adaptation was on point. Such a joy to watch.
First of all, it was wholly apparent that these actors truly understood their material, which is so crucial to any successful production of Shakespeare, because while the language was incredibly accessible to folks in Elizabethan England, it can be a lot like Greek to a modern audience. Inflection is everything. Performance is everything. Timing is everything. And these actors—impeccable. The entire audience was laughing and gasping during the entire show, which means we got the jokes and understood the plot. My guess is that these actors fully immersed themselves in their texts and studied their material. And I’d also guess that their performances are a byproduct of the skillful direction of Mr. David Vining.
On top of that, they had fun onstage! From the third row, my boyfriend and I were up close and personal. We saw every subtle (and not so subtle) expression shift, every interaction between characters. And each actor was feeding off the energy of everyone else onstage, which resulted in a phenomenal, cohesive ensemble. This show wasn’t work for them (and if it felt that way to the actors, it wasn’t apparent to the audience). Since the actors were having fun onstage, we were given permission to have fun as audience members.
Now let me fan girl for a second over two standout actors in the production: Allison Sell, who played Rosalind, the lead heroine of As You Like It; and William Wilson, who played Touchstone, a fool at the Duke’s court.
Allison Sell: Shakespeare girl crush. There’s no other way to say it. The character of Rosalind carries this particular play, and Sell seemed to do so without breaking a sweat. In particular, her mastery of physical comedy impressed me, from her flawless facial expressions to the careful, jolly point in her toes. Movement didn’t look contrived for her, though I’m sure it was carefully planned (or happy accident and then repeated). Her delivery of her lines was gorgeous and seemed improvisational; she never faltered and it seemed like her thoughts were coming forward, unscripted. And such presence. That stage was hers, no doubt about it.
William Wilson: The most pleasant surprise. When the play opened, we undoubtedly knew that Wilson had impressive belching ability, but in the second act when Touchstone really gets to speak and frolic and make mischief…hold onto your hats. Wilson managed to find a balance between complete foolishness and this uncanny knowledge of life and happiness. A fool, yes, but an easy fool to play? Definitely not. Wilson’s character filled the space to the brim with revelry and madness and uncouth. Like his true love Audrey did toward the close of the play, I’m pretty sure we all wanted to feed him grapes and play audience to his jokes.
Other highlights. Live music (yes, every cast member sang!), great costuming, seeing my friend live into his art (Red, you were brilliant), laughter, and the reminder that Shakespeare knows how to tell a damn good story.
Last night, I had it as I like it. I chose Shakespeare over Super Bowl shenanigans. I guess it all boils down to an individual definition of entertainment and art. While I know there’s artistry in the perfect pass and orchestrating defensive and offensive plays, I’ll always choose iambic pentameter and tights over pigskin.