By Aileen Johnson
The Theatre Lab’s musical adaption of As You Like It is a modernized, rollicking, vibrant revival of the Shakespeare classic. But all of the themes he explored remain front and center — familial rivalry, belonging, and power. Additionally, all of the trappings of a typical Shakespeare comedy remain — the disguises, the wordplay, the multiple marriages, and the mistaken identities.
But more than anything, Director Deb Gottesman’s production celebrates love. As You Like It tugs at your heartstrings from start to finish demonstrating the power of love in all its forms. Demonstrating that love makes magic real.
Under Gottesman’s assured hands, this troupe of students from The Theatre Lab’s Creating a Musical Role Class of 2023 performed like the seasoned professionals they aspire to become. Remarkably, some were on the other side of the footlights for the first time making their debut. I only know that because Gottesman informed the audience; indeed, the performances betrayed no telltale beginner hallmarks. They performed the text deftly, both prose and verse. They told the story with passion and subtlety. Together, they all released its full power.
Overall, this diverse multicultural cast spanning ages and experience delivers a rousing take on the goings-on in the Forest of Arden through a modern lens. The most profound transformation being that the adaptation concerns feuding sisters rather than brothers.
The production crosses other necessary borders, from the past into the present. Gay couples are represented. The sanctity of the environment is too (here the Forest of Arden), and the role nature plays in our lives is incorporated. In one scene Jacque chides Orlando for carving poetry into trees, and what we see is Orlando writing on post-it notes. And most profoundly, the idea of sanctuary, and having a place where you are safe, welcome, free to be authentically you, and loved. That is resonant today!
Zach Rakatomaniraka as Orlando and Bella Heyer as Rosalind shine. Their chemistry is palpable. They crackle together. Orlando’s yearning for Rosalind is evident through his gestures and body language; he expresses his vulnerability and appeal in equal measure. Rosalind’s frustration comes through with enough force to be felt but is restrained and under control. Both actors do a wonderful job of communicating the pangs of desire they feel for one another.
Other standouts include Elgin Martin as Touchstone. He’s a clown but he’s no buffoon. It would be easy to go overboard performing the hijinks that he does, but Martin shows us the soul beneath the comedy. Lola Akingbade as Duchess Senior was outstanding. She commanded the stage whenever she appeared. What a voice! She sang beautifully. I can’t mention everyone’s contribution in this strong cast. Yet, I have to include the feuding would-be lovers Silvia and Phoebe, played by Yael Schoenbaum and Lizzie Bartlett Holman respectively. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Katie Barnett, who plays Jacques. I always leaned forward when she appeared for a droll and knowing delivery of the narrative poem “All the world’s a stage/And everybody’s in the show/Nobody’s a pro.”
Kudos to Musical Director Lucia LaNave. The musical productions meshed seamlessly with the spoken text. I was pleasantly surprised by the blend of rap, rock, pop, and country styles. This treat for the ears was made possible by the band, featuring Lucia LaNave on keyboard, Oliver Dyer on guitar, and John Guido on percussion. You will get a kick out of “Will You Be My Groom” and “You Phoebe Me,” perfect as counterparts in the game of romantic love. I’d pay for a concert of the music alone! And Choreographer Sarah Laughland arranged superb dance and movement in excellent accompaniment.
Other assets include character-revealing costumes by Costume Designer Maria Bissex. The Duchess Fredericka was perfectly outfitted in tiara, black leather pants, and black shirt paired with a military green close-fitting jacket and stacked black boots that screamed power and hostility. Touchstone’s flamboyant rainbowed polka dot suit paired with patterned sneakers was witty, just as he was. I loved that Bissex dressed the boxers in outfits you’d likely see on a televised pro SmackDown.
If you plan on seeing As You Like It expect to be swept up and to leave smiling. That is what I witnessed. Expect, too, to be genuinely moved by witnessing the transformative power of love in the Forest of Arden. A place of wonder I’d happily relocate to. And, expect to literally move. The closing showstopper “Still I Will Love,” brought the audience to a burst of clapping in rhythm and to enthusiastically engage in the call-and-response of the chief refrain. This is a DC production, made for the DC audience!
Finally, this production of As You Like It posits that we live lives of precious moments, the brevity of which we have no control. The only thing that we do control is whether and how we connect with one another, and whether we are able to allow ourselves to follow our hearts and be true to who we are.
This show says yes we can. That love makes magic real.
Running Time: About 90 minutes with no intermission.
As You Like It plays through April 30, 2023, presented by The Theatre Lab performing at the Undercroft Theatre (home of Washington Stage Guild) – 900 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC. Admission is $15, $10 for students (students must show ID); purchase tickets online or call 202-824-0449.
As You Like It
Adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery
Music and Lyrics by Shaina Taub
Directed by Deb Gottesman
Music Direction by Lucia LaNave.
Aileen Johnson writes criticism and fiction. A former playwright, she is a theater devotee. Aileen earned an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a JD from The George Washington University Law School. Aileen is currently working on a short story collection. When she is not working, writing, or cheering on actors or fellow writers, she enjoys hanging out with her wife and son and exploring the great outdoors with their spoiled Pit Bull/Boxer mix, who she extravagantly features in her Instagram.