October 4, 2015

Ithaca College Brings Shakespeare to Life

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On Saturday night, the Department of Theatre Arts at Ithaca College performed its public debut of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. In addition to launching the comedy’s individual production run, this marks the beginning of the department’s 2015-2016 theatre season, which will consist of other well-known classics like A Chorus Line and more modern dramas like Arcadia.

One of Shakespeare’s 38 plays, As You Like It was written in 1599, and published in the First Folio in 1623; the origins of its initial performances are unclear. Of the three “genres” present in the First Folio, As You Like It is considered to be a comedy. As You Like It centers around Rosalind and her unexpected journey through the Forest of Arden, to where she and her cousin, Celia, are cast away from the court by her ruthless uncle, Duke Frederick. At some point before the play’s events, Frederick had claimed the throne from and exiled his brother, Rosalind’s father, to the Forest of Arden. Before Rosalind is expelled, however, she meets Orlando de Boys. In true Shakespearean fashion, the two fall in love at first sight. Orlando is also forced out of the kingdom and into the Forest of Arden by his oppressive older brother, Oliver. Initially, neither of the two lovers know that they are both cast away in the forest. Rosalind, disguised as a boy named Ganymede, Celia, disguised as another woman named Aliena and Touchstone, the court’s jester, set off through the woods. They encounter many eccentric characters like Jacques, a member of the old duke’s exiled party. Jacques possesses a pensive, “melancholy” nature, and his constant philosophical monologues lead him to mutter some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, including “All the world’s a stage /And all the men and women merely players…” Ganymede (Rosalind) soon encounters Orlando, and eventually she lifts her disguise, marrying Orlando in the forest. Furthermore, Celia marries a newly reformed Oliver and Frederick, who has recently turned to a life devoted to religion, restores Rosalind’s father to the throne.

Performing a Shakespeare play in the 21st century can be quite difficult for contemporary theatre companies and departments. As Shakespeare was limited by the strict norms and basic technology of stage acting, the development of his plays lies primarily within their verses. Therefore, those who perform his plays are responsible for bringing the verses to life, and filling them with a splendid emotion that captures the audience’s attention. This can be a daunting task; at a first glance, Shakespeare’s early modern English appears to be lacking in any sense, and only through careful subsequent readings does its meaning begin to convey itself. Nevertheless, I was compelled by the refinement and professionalism evident in the IC player’s performance of As You Like It. Each actor possessed a certain quality in their deliverance that truly channeled the wit and emotional spectrum present in the playwright’s work. Perhaps most exemplary of this emotional command was senior Brianna Ford in the role of Rosalind. Ford portrayed Rosalind (and Ganymede) in a jovial, energetic way which captivated the audience. Far from merely muttering the lines, she brought to each verse a physicality – whether in literal skips and jumps or in facial expression when communicating with other characters – that satisfied the original challenge of bringing Shakespeare to life. Possessing a similar emotional presence was junior Trevor Eichhorn, who portrayed Jaques. One could identify with the philosophical brooding of Jacques, whether he be demanding more music to satiate his melancholy intellectual appetite or musing over the seven life-stages of man.

Director Catherine Weidner took advantage of the intimate, arena-style seating of the Clark Theatre. In many instances, the actors moved about and around the center of the room, with different characters entering and exiting from any of the four sides; this created a three-dimensional, rotating effect that allowed the audience members to fully submerse themselves in the scenes of the play. The transitions from scene to scene and act to act were seamless, giving the comedy life as its lines flowed freely across time. The Forest of Arden, a quintessential setting of the play, was introduced skillfully; the “parade” of characters that passed through the center field accurately showcased the more liberating nature of the forest in contrast to the strictness of the court. Furthermore, I particularly enjoyed how the musical scenes in As You Like It were addressed; the actors, singing themselves, applied Shakespeare’s lyrics to more contemporary melodies, and played the underlying chord progressions on six-string, acoustic guitars. As a contemporary audience may have difficulty identifying with musical ideas of Shakespeare’s time, this modernization of the play’s music was crucial in giving life to the play in 2015. This effective and skillful modernization also exists in the characters’ costumes, which represent fashion more so of the past century rather than that of Shakespearean times.

The theatre department at Ithaca College produced an excellent rendition of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Through carefully refined acting and modern directing techniques, this centuries-old play was vividly brought to life. As You Like It will run until October 10th, so I implore all to see it while it lasts!