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By Donald V. Calamia
"It's just not right," remarked my guest after the opening night performance of As You Like It at Detroit's Hilberry Theatre. "Shakespeare with Southern accents just doesn't sound right."
Especially some of THOSE Southern accents.
Yet despite the show's sometimes jarring - and not always comprehendible - vocal characteristics, what guest director Dean Gabourie delivers is a slick and well-acted comedy that transports the Elizabethan world into the Depression era of 1930s America. But what's more intriguing is his "high concept": It's staged as a live radio broadcast akin to Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre on the Air - complete with musical interludes, an "applause" sign and a comedian who "warms-up" the audience before the show. It's a unique re-imagination of the Bard's work, but not every idea is successful.
As You Like It is one of Shakespeare's popular love stories, wrapped in a tale of sibling rivalry, class differences and dirty politics. Orlando, the son of a deceased nobleman, heads for the forest after learning that his older brother, Oliver - ruler of the family estate and treasury - plots to kill him. There he meets Rosalind, the lovely and lively daughter of an exiled duke with whom he'd earlier fallen in love. But there's a hitch: She's disguised as a man, Ganymede, accompanied by his "sister" Aliena - who's really her cousin Celia - after likewise being banished by her no-good uncle Duke Frederick. How the two get together plays out amongst three other budding romances: a clown and a goatherd; a reformed Oliver and Celia; and a lovesick shepherd and his obnoxious honey - who only has eyes for Ganymede.
Everyone ends up with the appropriate lover, of course. But it's a contrived and all-too-quick resolution - and, in the case of Oliver's conversion, conveniently offstage.
Yet it's the contrasts that director Gabourie latches onto - and has the most fun with.
The evil Duke and his minions, for example, are Gestapo-like, whereas banished Duke Senior - his older brother - is the leader of Depression-era hobos. And the forest-folk? They're an odd mix of characters from TV's Mayberry and Dogpatch, the fictional hillbilly town popularized by political and social satirist Al Capp in the comic strip Li'l Abner. It's a fun idea, but the cartoonish personalities are sometimes far too extreme. And there's just something WRONG with Gomer Pyle spouting Shakespeare.
But that's somewhat mitigated by Gabourie's superb work in getting his actors to understand and comfortably deliver the Bard's words. (His resume includes four seasons with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.) And several performances are first rate.
Especially notable are Caroline Price (Rosalind), Morgan Chard (Celia), martini-toting Brian P. Sage (as the W.C. Fields-like clown, Touchstone), James Kuhl (the moody Jaques) and Sean Patrick Ward (Silvius). But it's the boyishly-charming Michael Boynton as Orlando who creates the show's most engaging and thoroughly satisfying character.
A few staging problems exist, particularly for those sitting in the first several rows at house right. (It took a long time on opening night for us to discover who made the splashy entrance with all the brides-to-be, for example.) And Lex van Blommestein's set works okay in the forest, but not in other scenes. Em Rossi's costumes, though, are excellent.
At the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Plays in rotating repertory through April 12. Tickets: $20-$30. For information: 313-577-2972 or www.hilberry.com
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