It doesn't get more minimal than this: As You Like It performed by six people on a stage where the set consists of little besides a large rock, swaths of fabric and a wooden swing; echoing footsteps announce an actor's entry minutes before he or she actually appears; and everyone changes character simply by donning a wig, a hat, a jacket or a different expression. Theater is supposed to create magic before your very eyes — and if that's going to happen at this Modern Muse production, you think as you settle into your seat, these actors will have to work very hard.
Shakespeare's play is about a lot of shenanigans in a forest — like most of Shakespeare's forests, an enchanted place where identity becomes porous and gender changeable, lovers stumble about blindly before falling into each other's arms, the contrasts between courtly and rural living make for spirited discussion, and glorious poetry spills from the characters' mouths. Rosalind — one of the most charming of Shakespeare's many smart, enterprising, beautiful, young heroines — has the best lines, of course. But it's the rustic Silvius who tells us that loving "is to be all made of fantasy/All made of passion, and all made of wishes/All adoration, duty, and observance/All humbleness, all patience and impatience/All purity, all trial, all obedience," foolish Phebe who quotes Marlowe's "Whoever loved that loved not at first sight," and the melancholy courtier Jaques who simply lets loose with a flood of unstoppable brilliance that starts with "A fool, a fool, I met a fool in the forest" and goes on to the famous "All the world's a stage..."
Modern Muse's bare-bones approach to this sunny, lovely play has some problems. When your actors have to change character every few minutes, many of their characterizations are bound to be broad and shallow. The audience's attention gets deflected from the dialogue and action to the ingenuity with which the performers manage their transformations. And there's no way you can conclude the play as it begs to be concluded — with a group of happily embracing couples. But on the plus side — and this is decisive — the cast's playfulness, talent and good humor add a joy and high-spiritedness you'd never find in a more conventional production.
Jim Hunt makes a bluff and hearty Duke Senior though a less convincing old Adam, and Jake Walker is a funny, wide-eyed Touchstone. Brian Shea gives a solid rendering of Rosalind's love, Orlando; in smaller roles, he's sometimes terrific and sometimes cartoonish. Gregory J. Adams does justice to Jaque's monologues, speaking them as if he'd just thought them up himself. At first, Diana Dresser's Rosalind seems altogether too slight and unmoored, her voice too thin for the role, but by the second act, she's warmer and more centered, and her charm and humor triumph. Jamie Ann Romero's Celia is the big surprise: Most Celias are simps, and I'd never imagined one could just about romp away with the entire play — but that's exactly what Romero does.