Theater

Worth Street's MC Bard

The Forest of Arden in As You Like It as a housing project? The Foresters as homeboys, and the deers and stags as rival gangs? Puh-leeze! In Worth Street Theater's production (Tribeca Playhouse), director Jeff Cohen's improbable staging messes with the essence of Shakespeare's comic bauble, turning the utopian forest into poverty- and violence-infested streets. When Cohen force-fits the pastoral text—essentially unchanged—onto this concept of the 'hood, words and action just don't track. And yet "Under the Greenwood Tree" and "Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind" sizzle as pop and rap numbers, the romances effervesce, the comic interludes are a hoot, and the dialogue crackles.

That's because Cohen's lighthearted direction belies his ghetto motif. Ain't nobody in this forest project really down-and-out. Geniality and love prevail on every abandoned building stoop.

The heavies, Duke Frederick and Oliver—though well played by Daniel Ahearn and Ron Simons—seem almost irrelevant. But the love stories delight. Orlando, a charismatic Devin Haqq in dreadlocks, succumbs dreamily to the clever machinations of Rosalind/ Ganymede, played by Sally Wheeler. A little wooden as a girl, Wheeler charms as the teasing boy—Rosalind and Orlando strike sparks. In Cohen's back-slappy, huggy, sluggy world, there's also chemistry in the horseplay and hormone-crazed shrieks between Rosalind and Celia—Virginia Williams, winning as the awkward sidekick in schoolgirl tartans, braids, and specs.

Why make shepherd Silvius a Pakistani immigrant? Dunno, but James Rana's a stitch as the heavily accented, servile nerd courting the haughty Phebe (Liza Lapira). With his Whoopi Goldberg-ish mannerisms and outsize presence, Dwight Ewell makes a hysterical Touchstone, punctuating his demonstration of degrees of insult and retort with masterfully executed obscene gestures. Keith Davis's Jacques makes nice work of the seven stages of man, and Cohen's actors generally speak the lines fluidly and naturally.

Whenever the Foresters appear in their hip-hop getups, they look as if they wandered in from some other play, but after a while you welcome them. Played by Impact Repertory Theater, they rock . . . er, rap. And they turn Shakespeare's songs, set mostly to Rick Hip Flores's original music, into hand-clapping, foot-stomping crowd pleasers. They also boast a dazzling break-dancer.

While the larger themes of As You Like It dissolve around all these high jinks, you're having too good a time to care. It's as if Cohen has stolen a famous necklace, pried out the gems, and freshly reset them. They look so good you almost don't miss the original. —Francine Russo


On the Couch

In a theater town as competitive as this one, where can an emerging director test his or her vision? The American Living Room at Here still provides one of the comfier cabaret spaces for auteurial trial and error. More works in progress than finished products, the ambitious bill of "8 weeks, 80 shows, 800 artists" amounts to an on-the-job training program. July's lineup featured directors from the Lincoln Center Directors Lab—short works, spare sets, no extras, with the added incentive of fellow Lab members in the audience, slung across couches, all eyes and ears.

If there is an unsettling question raised by July 24's program, it has less to do with stage fluency than dramaturgical sophistication. The taste in plays left me wondering whether these young directors have read widely in the canon of world theater—so little dramatic poetry, so many obvious ideas. Can there be a more important directorial asset than the ability to read a play and discern its quality?

Director Kevin Vavasseur's choice of Excelsior by Jay Bernzweig almost works, despite the piece's heavy-handed neo-Orwellian metaphor. Set in a luxury hotel suite that responds to a guest's needs as soon as they're uttered, the action revolves around Nick (Joseph Kamal), a hyper guy who can't remember why he's famous or how he's been transported to this five-star prison. Apparently, he's being paid by the competition not to work—a version of the American dream, says his slumbering girlfriend, who clearly doesn't mind living off corporate bribes.

The directorial challenge of the piece lies in the handling of Nick's character—he's a manic pain in ass, but his horror at his situation can't be dismissed as crackpot paranoia. Neurosis can be hard to put up with, and Vavasseur might have made things easier for his audience had he encouraged his actor to begin less heatedly. (There's no room to build.) But conviction carries the piece through to its capitalist-critique conclusion.

Eighteen, a play by Allison Moore, offers director Maryann Lombardi little more than a TV drama that mistakes ponderous style for substance. A yuppified husband and wife take in their niece after her mother passes away, only to inflict on the already traumatized girl their flagrant boundary issues with food and sex. In a succession of short scenes that overexert themselves trying to impress, the piece trundles along (with clunky stagehand maneuvers) to numbing effect. Though Lombardi elicits competent work from her ensemble, her production never suggests a reason why Eighteenrequires the unique medium of the stage. More than kudos, the promising American Living Room participants deserve a crash course in play reading. —Charles McNulty

 
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