The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Barry Pineo, August 21, 2009, Arts

As You Like It

Scottish Rite Theatre,

through Aug. 30

Running time: 2 hr, 45 min

Summer and Shakespeare go together like love and marriage, and you won't find many plays with as much romance and wedlock in them as this one. One of Shakespeare's best and most popular plays, this one fleshes out no less than four love stories. While the main one centers on the headstrong Orlando and his poetic pursuance of the gender-bending Rosalind, there's also one between Orlando's brother Oliver and Rosalind's dear friend Celia, as well as two love triangles, one involving the clownish Touchstone, the shepherdess Audrey, and the bumpkin William, and the other ensnaring the shepherd Silvius, the shepherdess Phebe, and Rosalind herself (although she's pretending to be a man at the time).

Sounds complicated, but it's a tribute to this Scottish Rite Theatre production that the story isn't difficult to follow at all. That's true for two reasons. The actors, in every instance, understand everything they say – no small task in a Shakespeare play, so some credit must go to "master of text" Matt Radford. In addition, you have plenty of time to figure everything out because "master of play" Beth Burns appears to have her actors perform the entire text. Unfortunately, that also works against the production. It clocks in at close to three hours, so a bit of judicious pruning might have helped.

The delights of the production are twofold. First, director Burns wisely chooses to use Scottish Rite's fly system with its beautifully painted drops to set the scenes, and the drops – courtyards, a playing field, a forest, all exquisitely rendered examples of forced-perspective scene painting – are entrancing. Second, the actors are uniformly competent and, often, excellent. Burns seems to have asked some of the actors to utilize a fairly broad playing style, which works particularly well in the hands of Casey Weed, in dual roles as the wrestler Charles and the bumpkin William, and especially for Jill K. Swanson as the fickle Phebe. For other roles, Burns seems to have required a character more grounded in reality, best exemplified by Robert Matney, who turns in the most accomplished performance of the evening as the melancholy philosopher Jaques.

One major complaint: For large chunks of scenes, Burns has actors upstage themselves. That is, an actor meant to be the focal point of a scene will spend large parts of it with his or her back turned to the audience. The actors are complicit in this – after all, they could fix the problem by keeping their focus toward the audience while speaking. But at the risk of absolving the actors, this upstaging is Burns' responsibility, because she could have easily addressed the problem, either by moving the actors upstage when they needed focus or coaching them to turn out to the audience when speaking.

That aside, this is easily one of the more accomplished productions of a Shakespeare play I've seen in my 20-plus years in Austin. And besides, can you really go wrong attending any play that begins with a wrestling match and ends with a jig?

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