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Talisman Theatre

In this era of naked Pucks, neon Dunsinanes, and video Hamlets, of new-age Macbeths and drag-queen Twelfth Nights, it is a great relief to find a company that’s willing to do away with all the modern accoutrements and present a faithful Shakespeare adaptation. Too often in this town Shakespeare’s words get bulldozed under a heap of gizmos, whatchamacallits, and whatsits. In an apparent effort to make Shakespeare’s works more palatable to modern-day audiences, theater companies love to cram the world of Shakespeare into anachronistic settings and fill it with references to pop psychology or current politics or other unnecessary conceits.

What Mark Hardiman and Talisman Theatre realize is that Shakespeare left alone is every bit as modern as any playwright alive in the 20th century–and his works seem a lot less dated than plays written only 20 years ago. Talisman’s production of As You Like It is certainly not the perfect revival of the play, but it is an effective one, and it focuses attention on the language of Shakespeare.

As You Like It, for those of you who had mono that semester, comes from Shakespeare’s canon of light, airy “lovers in the woods” plays. Orlando, chased from his home by the selfishness of his brother Oliver, escapes to the forest, where he finds Rosalind, also banished from her homeland. Their love story–in which Rosalind, dressed as a boy, tutors Orlando in the ways of love–is played out against a backdrop of feuding dukes, kindly bumpkins, mad lovers, and fools who show great wisdom.

Hardiman sets his production in “Rosalind’s dreamforest,” using only a hammock and a small amount of suggestive scenery. Beyond the walls of dukedoms, Shakespeare’s characters are able to free themselves of their usual roles and reveal their true natures; the forest, with no rules or societal conventions but a quite literal state of nature, becomes a place where the madness that is love can grow and flourish. What appears to be a convenient plot contrivance–the once-evil Oliver forgets his long-standing feud with brother Orlando upon entering the forest–is actually yet another testament to the intoxicating power of love that reigns there.

Mary Hatch’s Rosalind is giddy, playful, and wise, and Tomm Gillies’s dreamy, moonstruck Orlando is drunk with love for her. After all, “Whoever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?” Rhea Anne Cook’s Celia, whose sisterly love for Rosalind drives her to accompany her friend into the forest, is filled with wisdom and common sense until she too succumbs to the magic of the forest. And Rob Stormont’s Touchstone, the clown who joins Rosalind and Celia on their journey, is a lusty comic with all the bawdiness a name like Touchstone suggests.

Talisman’s major success in this production is its mastery of the Shakespearean language–every actor delivers his or her lines with impeccable diction and a good understanding of the text. And though the play clocks in at somewhere around three and a half hours, the pacing is sharp and quick as characters race from scene to scene. The pacing succeeds in minimizing the importance of a few mediocre performances, and the show’s emphasis on Shakespeare’s language makes the words more important than the way characters utter them.

At times this As You Like It is brought down by a bit of pretension and the repetition of certain bits of stage business. Some of the actors perform their roles with a heightened stage dialect, a phony Britishness that gets a little trying. Also, Hardiman seems to have run out of creative movements for his actors in the small space, so he repeats a few of them ad infinitum. One actor will lecture another by circling around him ponderously. Another will express enthusiasm by throwing her hands upward and falling into a cross-legged seated position. Yet another will show pomposity by extending one hand upward and grasping the air. This may seem like quibbling, but the repetition wears after the third hour arrives. Fortunately, Shakespeare’s text and a very strong supporting cast are enough to overcome the flaws.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cheryl Fort.