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Review: Two River Theater's 'As You Like It'

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Here is a guest review from Michael T. Mooney:

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“All the world's a stage!” For the next two weeks that stage should be Two River Theater, and the play topping your 'must-see' list should be AS YOU LIKE IT. Artistic Director John Dias has wisely reunited three of the men responsible for last season's acclaimed HENRY V: Director Michael Sexton, star Jacob Fishel, and (of course) playwright William Shakespeare. This time the trio are in a merrier mood, presenting one of the Bard's pastoral cross-dressing comedies.

In AS YOU LIKE IT the fair Rosalind is banished from her uncle's court and takes refuge in the forest disguised as a man. There she seeks her father as well as her true love, Orlando, who are also wandering the wood. Sexton's production features a talented cast of elven, with race and gender blending seamlessly as they double and sometimes triple their way through the Forest of Arden. The theme of Sexton's AS YOU LIKE is transformation, not just of location but also of character.

This modern-dress production opens in the court of the Duke, beautifully designed by Brett J. Banakis. Despite the stuffy interior, the Forest of Arden is ever-present in an evocative painting above the fireplace, hinting at the adventures that lie ahead. The scenic transformation from stately drawing room to the snowy birches of Arden is nothing less than breathtaking. Although the remainder of the play is set out-of-doors, remnants of the court remain to remind us that the two worlds are not so very different. The characters also transform, with the smartly attired court becoming the colorfully clad cast-offs. In lieu of off-stage costume changes, Sexton often has the actors transform in front of the audience, embracing the play's theatricality in this and other nuanced touches that subtly reinforce the theme.

Ben Toth's original music is somewhat problematic. Not that it isn't excellent; it is. That's the trouble. When the cast sings his four original songs, we almost wish we were watching a musical version of AS YOU LIKE IT. Call it an embarrassment of riches. But certainly Sexton's smartest decision is the casting of Miriam A. Hyman as Rosalind. If we didn't know that her gender transformation was dictated by plot and not economy, we would totally believe her as a street-smart youth navigating the wild wood as well as her wayward heart.

When Shakespeare's scenes bring both Hyman and Fishel together the results are electric, even late in the two hour and forty minute production. Hyman's Rosalind feels modern without ever compromising Shakespeare's antique verbiage. Her skilled performance also makes the play amazingly accessible to young people, with Fishel's movie star good looks rounding out the youth appeal. The entire ensemble is delightful, with Myra Lucretia Taylor a standout in her transformation from world-weary servant Adam to lusty shepherdess Phebe.

If you long for accessible, entertaining Shakespeare, get thee to Two River Theater in Red Bank. To quote the play, “I like this place. And willingly could waste my time in it.”

Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney Jan. 31, 2014

Two River’s Rechnitz Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank; performances continue through Sunday, February 16. Tickets are available from 732.345.1400 or tworivertheater.org.

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