The Gamm’s As You Like It Is A Triumph

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love;

Cannot be killed or swept aside.

  • Lin-Manuel Miranda

You love her/But she loves him/And he loves somebody else/You just can’t win

  • J. Geils Band

GAMM1The Gamm’s relationship with Shakespeare is, as artistic director Tony Estrella puts it, “like a rope of two thick strands braided together by the intimacy of a small theater experience.” The other “strand,” of course, being classic and modern plays that take on political and/or social issues. Shakespeare, however, always feels like coming home for The Gamm and their current effort (the last production in their Pawtucket space before moving on to the former OSTC space in Warwick next season) is nothing short of a triumph. This version of As You Like It is rich, layered, hilarious and utterly romantic. Where perhaps some previous outings of his works had minor flaws and some chinks in the armor, this Shakespeare offering sends Estrella’s company out of Pawtucket with a bang. Featuring many of The Gamm’s star players (including a featured performance by Sam Babbitt who hasn’t appeared onstage there in some time) coupled with some new (and quite excellent) talents, this As You Like It is sure to be remembered as one of the best shows of 2018.

Co-directed by Estrella and Rachel Walshe, the choices here are bold yet subtly calculating. The action is broad, often farcical, yet with a lighthearted nuance that keeps the core messages of the play in focus. And the staging, normally a more or less proscenium experience for The Gamm, is also quite literally out of the box; the two directors worked here with scenic designer Jessica Hill to create a more open environment, with the audience on both sides of a playing space that spills out and over every imaginable area. The overall feel is rustic and warm, with a careful mixture of modern and medieval. Amanda Downing Carney’s costuming is sophisticated, yet earthy (so much wool!) with an eye toward the gender-swapping utility that is so very much a part of this production. A touch of leather here, vests, well-worn suitcoats and many, many hats all serve to allow this nimble cast to change character – and sex – in seconds.

If leading a review of a production with more mentions of design elements than actors (and let us not forget the fairyland of practicals and specials that make up Jeff Adelberg’s fascinating light design) seems backward, it is merely a procrastination of how to approach an ensemble so perfectly in sync and individual performances so engaging that space may not permit a full and deserved accounting of what’s on hand. As Rosalind, the heroine / hero forced into exile by her usurping uncle, Duke Frederick (played nicely by Estrella during previews and continued on by Steven Liebhauser after the 24th) Nora Eschenheimer is a marvel. Her performance captures the complexity and purposeful ambiguity of a young woman forced to disguise her gender not only for her safety, but for the sake of love. The love in question is Orlando, also forced from home by an unapproving family member, but not before he wins a feat of strength and captures the heart of a soon-to-be cross-dressed Rosalind. The fact that Orlando, in this case, is played by a woman (Shura Baryshnikov in a simmering performance, both physically and emotionally commanding) only serves as the leading example of Walshe and Estrella’s exploration of the themes of gender, identity and humanistic love. Of course, we often expect cross-casting in Shakespeare due to historical precedent (and scholastic productions that are often forced into novel casting choices due to lack of resources), but the choices here are not arbitrary, often casting new light onto the myriad options for identity presented by Shakespeare’s script. Walshe, in her program notes, points to the fact that the original notion for this production was an all-woman cast, a full reversal of the all-male crews that would have been contemporary to the original performances in the early 1600s. The beauty of the direction and performances here is that Rosalind and Orlando, in this casting configuration, are anything but “neutral” — they’re more layered and complex for the choice. There is a palpable sexual tension at times, buttressed by seemingly casual artifice. Eschenheimer’s timing is impeccable, bringing humor, pathos and even an insouciant juvenility to this Rosalind. Whereas other Shakespearean gender swaps tend to play the humor of the dissimulation, like so much Uncle Milty, this part has moments of depth that shed light on the various meanings of gender and identity. Even as shallow as her first attraction seems (and her later puppy love swoons, released like so much pent-up gas), Rosalind delivers many of the play’s most insightful treatises on human behavior. Of the panoply of characters on hand here, only the ever-melancholy Jacques (a masterfully understated Jeanine Kane) has more to tell us about ourselves than Rosalind.

Jeff Church’s Touchstone, of course, is quite adept at pointing out our follies, as most of Shakespeare’s best fools are wont to do. Church’s performance is a highlight among many highlights – broad, but with a full command of what that type of performance entails. At a certain point we’re waiting for his return to the stage, so facile are his comic turns that each scene merely serves as an appetizer for the next. Excellent, too, are Diego Guevera’s Celia (a perfect gender foil to Eschenheimer) and Brandon Whitehead’s Amiens, whose musicality and sweetly affecting demeanor are a joy to experience.

By the time we are presented with the oafish and almost disquieting Silvius and Phoebe (show-stealing performances by Casey Seymour Kim and Jesse Hinton, respectively), there are enough couples in play to make for a jubilant confusion, which is really the position for which Shakespeare had been jockeying all along. Rosalind’s continuous command of the situation, even while we sense she/he is making this up as he/she goes along, is what makes As You Like It tick. The well-worn ruminations of Jacques and the almost tacked-on epilogues aside, the meat of this play is self-discovery, self-awareness and a sense that one must break free of imposed definitions in order to truly be happy. Love wins in the end, but in some ways, not the way anyone expected. Life is funny that way, says Shakespeare, but love is not to be trifled with when it’s presented to us, for nothing else really matters when all is said and done.

There was a buzz of expectation in the room as this show was about to start, “one last great reckoning in this little room” as Estrella puts it. The audience knows that this is how The Gamm will be remembered in Pawtucket. We expect The Gamm to serve up high-quality and masterfully produced work, and, with this button on the second phase of their life in RI theater, Estrella and company deliver just as we like it. We look forward to chapter three.

The Sandra Feinstein – Gamm Theatre presents William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, directed by Tony Estrella and Rachel Walshe through May 27. 172 Exchange St., Pawtucket. Call 401-723-4266 or order online at gammtheatre.org.

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