OREM — The Grassroots Shakespeare Company is the latest theatre company to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic. Their first production is Shakespeare‘s pastoral comedy, As You Like It. While it is good to see this homegrown troupe back on its feet, As You Like It shows that Grassroots is still a little rusty from their hiatus.
Before As You Like It begins, Duke Senior has been exiled by his younger brother, the usurping Duke Frederick. At court is young Orlando de Boys and his older brother, Oliver. Orlando gets exiled after a confrontation with his older brother, Oliver. Orlando is in love with Rosalind, the daughter of Duke Senior. She angers Duke Frederick, and her fate is — you guessed it — exile. All these characters make their way to the forest of Arden, with Rosalind disguised for her safety as the young man Ganymede and accompanied by her cousin Celia (also disguised). “Ganymede” meets with Orlando, who is now pining away for Rosalind. “Ganymede” agrees to help Orlando prepare himself to win Rosalind’s love, but she is unsure how to reveal her true identity to Orlando.
Most of the actors in As You Like It used a presentation acting style where they performed directly to the audience. As a result, actors were often not looking at each other when they spoke, which made it difficult to establish meaningful relationships among the characters. As You Like It is full of relationships — relatives, lovers, enemies —and when these fail to resonate, the play suffers. By and large, the actors instead focused on mugging to the audience and trying to get a cheap slapstick laugh. It was a short-term strategy that can please an audience, but at the expense of allowing viewers to get invested with the story and the characters.
As Orlando, Nathan Holley is a nice presence on stage. He delivers his lines earnestly, and Orlando’s lovesickness when he is attaching bad love poetry to trees was a memorable scene. Taylor Meredith played Rosalind pleasantly. Her assertiveness and confidence made it believable that Rosalind would take fate into her own hands, don a disguise, and prepare Orlando to woo her. Meredith was effervescent in the scene where Rosalind discovered Orlando’s love poetry.
However, Holley and Meredith lacked chemistry on stage, and it was difficult to care whether the two could have a future together. This is not entirely their fault, though. The relationship is a hard one to show on stage because (as I have stated before) Rosalind is disguised almost the entire time that they are on stage together, and throughout that time Orlando thinks that Rosalind is a boy.
The supporting cast had difficulty creating meaningful performances, mostly because of the presentational acting style and lack of connection with other people on stage. Drake Hansen, in the role of Touchstone, seemed to struggle the most in his role. Touchstone is supposed to be a fool, but I never felt like Hansen’s performance was jovial or playful. Sage Peacock had flashes of sweetness in the role of Celia, especially when falling in love with Oliver or in fawning over Orlando during the wrestling match. But in the forest scenes she rarely seemed very interested in Rosalind, let alone devoted to her.
Carter Walker, in the role of Oliver de Boys, gave the best performance of the evening. The enmity that Oliver showed towards Orlando was strong and memorable. This made their reconciliation at the end of the play the most satisfying resolution. Walker also showed believable affection towards Celia at the end of the play, and his softening to a young lover was a gratifying contrast to Oliver’s earlier behavior. Søren Budge‘s portrayal of Jacques was another positive in the show, and his performance of the famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue was the only time when the actors seem to trust the script completely.
Another asset was the bohemian costumes for As You Like It, which fit in well with the scenes that take place in the forest of Arden. They seemed out of place at a wealthy court, but after the last exile, the play never returns to that setting.
I blame the troubles of this production on the circumstances in which it was mounted. This is the first Grassroots Shakespeare Company production in over a year and a half, and many of the company’s mainstay actors were not in the cast. The company’s short rehearsal time may have made it difficult to create a unified cast and engaging scenes. Additionally, the performance I saw occurred at the extreme southeast corner of Orem Center Street Park, where the cast had to fight against the noise of traffic from two streets and the loud music from a cultural festival about a hundred yards away. The ambient noise made it difficult to be taken away to the idyllic, rustic forest of Arden.
Still, I am grateful that Grassroots Shakespeare Company is back. Their offbeat interpretation of Shakespeare is a unique contribution to the state’s theatre community, and I look forward to their next production (Richard III).