This winter, the Burning Coal Theatre Company in Raleigh offers a respite from the cold and into the forest of Arden with As You Like It. The play is a Shakespeare comedy first published in 1623, and follows would-be lovers Rosalind and Orlando into the forest of Arden after being banished from court. Rosalind and her cousin Celia are disguised – Rosalind as a man named Ganymede and Celia as a poor woman named Aliena. The forest is filled with more than its fair share of disguise and shenanigans as the characters therein try to navigate the confusing path to love and happiness.
The spirit of the show is centered around perhaps the most iconic lines from As You Like It, and some of the most famous ever written by Shakespeare:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. II.vii.143-147
True to this idea of each actor playing several parts, each of the seven actors plays no fewer than two roles, and some as many as four important characters. This is in addition to the fact that some of the characters themselves, namely Rosalind and Celia, play other roles as they disguise themselves as Ganymede and Aliena, respectively. The idea of this production is, without being entirely explicit about it, that we are seeing a sort of theater troupe put on a show. The costumes for various characters hang around the black-box theater, each labeled for the character who wears it. While the show absolutely captures the feel that it's going for, it does so by sacrificing some practical aspects of the show. Those iconic lines are perhaps taken a touch too literally, which does lead to some confusion of the characters.
As You Like It is already one of Shakespeare's more confusing plays – anytime disguise is a part of the equation, the complexity increases exponentially. The fact that the cast is only seven strong and that each actor plays multiple roles adds to the complexity. There's not enough differentiation between costumes to provide the audience with a firm grasp on who's who. The set is the primary limiting factor in the clarity of the show. While the architectural element upstage is nice, the minimalist set design does not adequately serve the needs of the show. The very flexibility of the set is its downfall, as there are few (and sometimes no) other indicators (props, projections, etc.) of where the scene is taking place.
The actors do a fine job carrying the many roles. In particular, Lori Mahl stands out as Celia and Phebe. Her charm and presence fill the small space. The ensemble is a hard-working group of actors who certainly do not shy away from taking risks and filling the space, right up to the front row of the audience.
As You Like It runs through December 16. For tickets and more information, visit www.burningcoal.org.
Photo Credit: the Right Image Photography, Inc.