It’s the afternoon of the fateful wrestling tournament in As You Like It, and the nasty Duke’s man, fearsome Charles, is kicking young Orlando’s behind. The Duke’s not-at-all-nasty niece Rosalind, who’s taken one look at the young challenger and is smitten beyond repair, leans forward from the crowd and blows a kiss to Orlando, who catches it, swallows it, swells with sudden strength, and kicks Charles into the middle of next week.
It’s an audacious moment, a big-wink, comic-strip spectacle that’s representative of Post5 Theatre’s brash new production, and Rosalind’s kiss might well be aimed at the entire enterprise: This As You Like It is Post5’s first production in its new home in the Sellwood district, and Saturday’s opening-night audience greeted it as a celebration.
The opening performance was all of that, and like Orlando’s victory, a bit of a dramatic turnaround, too. Ty Boice, Post5’s artistic director and the director of As You Like It, told the crowd that as of four days before opening, the theater had no chairs. The company borrowed a little more than 100 of them from the neighboring church, and eventually will have to come up with its own. The show, as they say, must go on – and it did.
Like the production itself, Post5’s new space – which takes up roughly half of a handsome church compound at 1666 Southeast Lambert Street, off Milwaukie Boulevard – is a work in progress. The bones are terrific, and for the rest, the basics are in place. Post5 has a performing space that’s bursting with potential, and a nice little bar and lounge in the basement, and the rest will come: Unfinished Cathedral, the title of T.S. Stribling’s 1930s novel of the economic and cultural transformation of the American South, comes to mind. Plus, the place has that most precious of commodities, a big, free parking lot. The space came together in the nick of time, and it gives Post5 a genuine home to grow into gradually, in a lively neighborhood that’s outside the usual performance zone. That’s worth tossing a little confetti in the air.
Post5 approaches Shakespeare with a reckless verve, putting the pedal to the metal and emphasizing the nowness of the thing rather than its antiquity. Boice’s As You Like It is built for speed, made for audiences who come not to worship Shakespeare but to enjoy him. And it’s bound to divide viewers: does it breathe fresh postmodern energy into a creaky old narrative, or does it simply skim along the surfaces of a classic, hauling in easy laughs while the bigger, deeper ones remain untouched?
On opening night I found the show winsome, agreeable, a little sloppy, and a little too eager to please: I’d’ve liked more precision and evenness of tone, and less eagerness to adopt any frisky shtick that came wagging its tail down the street. Yes, As You Like It is a frolic. But it also has some high emotional and philosophical stakes. In this light comedy are questions of trust, truth, honor, danger, betrayal, and the categories of love, from brotherly to casual to deeply bonded. Evil and mortality rear their ugly heads, and the play considers the role of aggression and violence in both politics and love.
The balance is tricky: all of this thrums below the surface, and to approach the play like a Lear or Hamlet would be to fundamentally mistake it. But the shadings should be acknowledged, and this production plays the whole thing like a high-school rom-com. Having Charles show up in a Mexican lucha libre pro-wrestling mask (shades of Portland artist Victor Maldonado’s sly cultural interventions), uttering only savage grunts, turns him into a purely comic character and drains the danger out of one of the play’s crucial scenes. That air-kiss further turns the scene farcical. And there are wild variations in performance approach, so much so that I sometimes wondered whether the actors were making deliberate choices or simply hadn’t fully shaped what they were doing. The show’s prevailing mood seems less a specific style than a loosey-goosey anarchy in the woods. I lay this at least partly to the twin stresses of putting on a new show and creating an actual theater from an empty space at the same time.
Yet there’s also that refreshing narrative drive. The play’s well-spoken, and the cast is studded with good performers, several of them younger and brimming with promise. Chip Sherman as Orlando and Isabella Buckner as Rosalind (who performs in her male disguise as a drawling cowboy at home on the range) are engagingly open and well-matched, and Jessica Tidd is a likely sidekick to Rosalind as Celia, the duke’s daughter, who out of friendship flees with her to the Forest of Arden when her father banishes Rosalind on pain of death. Max Maller’s shoulder-shrugging Touchstone works less well for me, deliberately casual yet casual to a fault. The performance that sticks with me most clearly, and seems in many ways the most perceptively formed, is Keith Cable’s as Jaques, the melancholy fellow of the woods, who delivers the “seven stages of man” speech with laconic eloquence and who hints, in his double edge of comedy and moroseness, at the clipped contradictions of a Hugh Laurie.
Boice and his designers have made a virtue of the show’s low budget, which fits with Post5’s determination to deliver good theater at a low price: tickets are just $15, and on pay-what-you-will nights, you get to choose, which makes this show affordable for almost anyone. Costumer Cassandra Boice’s designs are bright and cheap and affable, with a touch of logger chic, and tech director Randall Pike’s sets and props are wittily low-rent, from simple hanging sheets to exuberant sprinklings of colorful leaves, flung playfully into the air to depict the changing seasons with a wink that works. The show resolves with an exuberance that overrides what doubts you may be wrestling with. After all, this As You Like It is only a beginning.
As You Like It continues at Post5 through December 13. Ticket and schedule information are here.