Ambitious college production incorporates a cast of twelve, a live mix-music DJ, and some original Elizabethan lyre scoring to illustrate themes from five Shakespeare plays. Rapid-fire scenes of danger and friendship and falling in love are all embedded in the symbology of the wedding ring, from the perspectives of Portia, Imogen, Julia, Rosalind, and Viola. Engagingly performed, if somewhat difficult to follow the sudden shifts of character and situation.
Directed and adapted by Tim McDonough. Set design by Sara Culpepper. Costume design by Marianne Martin. Lighting design by Robert Turner. Sound design by Chris Alfonso.
Lauren Levitt (Julia), Troizel Carr (Proteus/Iachimo), Maya L. Hubbard (Silvia/Lucetta/Olivia/Guiderius), Jemma Giberson (Hostess/Celia/Sebastian), Carys Meyer (Portia), Jennifer Harvey (Nerissa), Jake Krakovsky (Bassanio/Corin/Malvolio), Joshua Young (Gratiano/Pisanio), Travis Draper (Shylock/Posthumous), Forrest Manis (Antonio/Orsino), Julia Weeks (Rosalind), Kendall T. Boone, Jr. (Orlando/Captain/Arviragus), Amanda Camp (Viola), Jana Muschinski (Imogen). With Chris Alfonso (DJ Litio).
Director Tim McDonough's adaptation of scenes from five plays by Shakespeare - The Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline, Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night - makes its world premiere at the Theater Lab of Emory University. An ensemble of twelve wearing dark gray jeans and comfortable-looking gray flannel act like a troupe at a cast party, enjoying the boom of loud music played by a live DJ, doing warm-ups like squat thrusts or stretching windmills, gathering together for a circle pull or impromptu dance moves. The set around them is a shadowy series of ramps and multi-level platforms, and about a dozen Elizabethan-style costumes - brocade-looking gowns, doublet and hose - hang from various heights over the stage. After the shout of "a horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!" the players take their opening positions for the usual admonitions against cell phones and flash photography. McDonough culls his scenes from among the women-in-disguise lead roles in the five plays, comparing and contrasting them in context - with a friend, deeply in danger, giving a ring as a token - and the audience develops an appreciation for the playwright and his consistent development of vulnerable but spirited female heroines taking chances and speaking their minds.
McDonough introduces the main characters with glimpses of Portia in The Merchant of Venice disguising herself as Balathazar, then Imogen as Fideles in Cymbeline, Julia as Sebastian in Two Gentlemen of Verona, and - best of all, in a whip-smart but perky-confident portrayal by Julia Weeks - Rosalind disguising herself as Ganymede in As You Like It, then finally the shipwrecked Viola pretending to be Cesario in Illyria at the beginning of Twelfth Night. McDonough intercuts scenes from the plays, the characters plumbed not just for humor, but for their strength of character plus the danger - and necessity - of disguise. It is often fascinating to see different takes on similar themes, Portia giving her ring to the rather expectant Bassanio, Imogen giving hers to a humbly kneeling Posthumus, or Weeks' delighted Rosalind giving her ring to Orlando, barely able to contain her glee as Celia watches. Julia goes so far as to follow up her gift - "and seal this bargain with a holy kiss" - while Viola must search out Olivia's discarded ring with a flashlight, dropping into the darkness of a trap. Amanda Camp's Viola is shown being aided by the Captain - "be a man" - and the quick cuts continue, the wily heroines all aided and abetted by trustworthy friends: Imogen with Pisanio, struggling with the stuffing for the front of her manly trousers, or Weeks' Rosalind, practicing deeper pitches of her voice - "whither shall we go?" - as instructed by her BFF and voice coach Celia in the forest of Arden. Portia plays the moment the biggest - telling Nerissa how "we will disguise ourselves" with manly gestures, then pausing bow-legged at "what we lack," although Julia is delighted with her codpiece, modeling like a man in a clothing catalog for Lucetta.
After a musical clap-along interlude along with some neatly executed dance moves, McDonough continues his entertaining compare-and-contrast exercise. The heroines are shown becoming increasingly weary, both with their ongoing deception and with the danger in which they find themselves. Imogen wears a black headband as she bemoans "a man's life" and peers into the cave-like darkness of a trap as possible shelter. She manfully chest bumps one of the feral princes who befriends her, and McDonough segues to Viola sitting with her knees splayed like a man's, both fearing and longing for an embrace from Orsino. Most evocative of all is Weeks' charming Rosalind struggling along with the exaggerated movements of a dawdling toddler.
McDonough bookends a pair of scenes with extended sequences from The Merchant of Venice, first Rosalind's chat with the Old Shepherd then Troizel Carr's Proteus attempting (and failing badly) to impress his best mate's girlfriend with the "Who Is Silvia" song and a comically exaggerated ass-dance, facing away from her but looking back as he shakes and shimmies and flexes with awful gusto. The Merchant scenes are enhanced by Carys Meyer's portrayal of Portia with minimal emotion but more hyper-intellectualism and eloquence. The "quality of mercy" speech is delivered as a thoughtful dictate rather than an emotional plea, although Travis Draper's dark-eyed Shylock remains unimpressed - he even seems bemused - whetting his knife throughout. The second scene shows him raising his knife to Antonio as Bassanio professes his love for the man, somewhat to the consternation - and surprise - of Meyer's day-saving Portia. McDonough extends the scene, the longest of any sequence he has chosen to include, taking time to show the humiliation of Shylock as well as the cutting way of his wealth and his religion, the latter symbolized by Antonio putting a chain and crucifix around Shylock's neck.
Weeks' shaggy-blonde Rosalind delivers the performance of the show, her Rosalind ebullient and radiant, always beaming a smile and speaking with an engaging cadence. Her characterization could easily anchor a full production of As You Like It, and she is ably supported by Jemma Giberson's Celia, who at one point clenches her fists in comic frustration at the romantic gamesmanship between Rosalind and the dashingly clueless Orlando. An ensemble member pretends to be a tree upstage-left atop a ramp, a wooden placard indicating "Rosalind" around her neck, er...branches, with some of Orlando's love poems clutched in her hands. Giberson's Celia descends the steps with unimpressed boredom - and a droll eye roll - as Weeks' Rosalind squeals and scampers up to embrace the tree then pepper her friend with rapid-fire questions and a demand: "answer me in one word!"
McDonough also spends a good deal of time exploring Viola and Twelfth Night, wrapping a pair of scenes around a twirling dance interlude. In the first scene, Camp's Viola confidently confronts the five veiled women in Olivia's household - "I am not that I play" - and in the second she resists the apparent wooing of Olivia - "can one so quickly catch the plague?" - and tries to refuse the ring as she makes her realization: "I am the man!" McDonough begins applying significance to the rings, tying together the characters and situations from the plays, with Camp's distraught Viola trying to cope with her growing feelings for Orsino - "if music be the food love, play on" - while pretending to be a man, and failing at both, like when she staggers girlishly into DJ Litio to silence the dance music. Moments later, she is confronting Olivia, trying to return the gift - "I pity you" - but only getting kissed. The scenes are brief but their impact is enormous - Iachimo gloats over the ring he has stolen from Imogen but pretends is a love token; Proteus grudgingly accepts the ring from Sebastian before realizing ("Julia!") who is truly the rightful owner - although McDonough does dwell on Meyer and The Merchant of Venice. The disguised Portia and Nerissa request the wedding rings from Bassanio and Gratiano for their successful services, secretly sharing a sly look that may as well have passed between Weeks and Giberson as Rosalind and Celia. Jennifer Harvey's sassy Nerissa steals the final scene from Merchant with her big-eyed, open-mouthed shock at Gratiano's betrayal, turning away to give Portia a coy grin and a smirking wink. Gratiano betrays his friend Bassanio, albeit in comic fashion, pointing and accusing to deflect attention from himself, and the ladies let them suffer a moment - "are we not cuckolds?" - before revealing their true identities.
Camp's Viola and Twelfth Night also enjoy a lot of closing attention, with a nicely tongue-in-cheek in-joke: a woman playing a man, Sebastian, flying in the face of the convention of male actors playing all roles. Camp's Viola and Giberson's Sebastian point fingers at each other in open-mouthed shock as Olivia fairly squeals in glee - "most wonderful!" - before rushing from the ramp to embrace and kiss, well, the wrong twin, and she must reluctantly relinquish Viola. The other plays have strong albeit brief final moments, most notably Jana Muschinki's Imogen on her knees holding a knife to her own breast and the short-lived lament of Kendall T. Boone's Orlando: "how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man's eyes!"
McDonough concludes with his spirited cast - "epilogue!" - sharing lines like a Shakespearean chorus as the DJ hits the dance beat hard from Beyonce's "Put a Ring on It." The ensemble bring wicker baskets filled with rings to the stage and hand them out as little souvenir gifts to audience members, some of the cast bursting through the fourth wall to invite patrons right onstage to join the dancing.