Impact Theatre specializes in new plays, usually fast-paced comedies aimed at a twentysomething audience, as befits a theater in a pizza-parlor basement half a block from UC Berkeley. But once a season artistic director Melissa Hillman helms a high-octane production of a Shakespeare play, always in a modern setting and with more sex and violence than usual. This time it's As You Like It, William Shakespeare's popular comedy of cross-dressing, wrasslin', and everyone getting horny in the woods.
No sooner have they fallen in love at first sight than young lovers Rosalind and Orlando are parted, each exiled by the evil duchess (usually a duke) because their parents are her political enemies. Accompanied by her cousin and best friend Celia, the duchess's child, Rosalind dresses as a man to protect herself on the road and holes up in the forest of Arden. There she happens upon her new love Orlando pinning clumsy love poems about her to the trees, and she volunteers to coach him in how to treat a woman.
So there's Rosalind in her male guise of Ganymede, telling Orlando to pretend she's Rosalind. (And, of course, in Shakespeare's day it would be a man playing the woman pretending to be a man, who in turn is play-acting as the woman she secretly is.) Complicating matters are a number of other romances, including a shepherd who loves a cruel young woman who can't stand him but has the hots for Ganymede.
In Hillman's take, the forest of Arden becomes a small town in Northern California. She piles on the gender-bending as well: Celia is played by Alexander Lenarsky as a hilariously exuberant young gay man. Marianna Wolff listlessly portrays double duchesses instead of dukes: Celia's ice-queen mother and the kindly ruler (and sister) she overthrew, dwelling happily in Arden. Sarah Coykendall gives a compelling turn as the melancholy Jaques, turning the idle cynic into a jaded hipster. This choice makes the gloomy philosopher's sudden enthusiasm for the presence of a jester (a boisterously bawdy B. Warden Lawlor) make more sense than usual, because it's the ironist's love of kitsch.
Anne Kendall's set keeps things simple: at first all the walls are covered in blue sheets and then it becomes a barroom sparsely decorated with Shakespeare-themed booze ads. There's a lot of punk, rock, and pop blasting through Colin Trevor's sound design, and a lot of use of projections, both for titles and an amusing video love letter. The flight into exile is staged as a Scooby-Doo-style chase scene. One highlight is the wrestling match between Orlando and the unstoppable champion Charles (Stacz Sadowski), with brutal fight choreography by Dave Maier, Jax Steager's flashing lights, and Coykendall and Luisa Frasconi pumping the crowd as ring girls.
Hillman keeps the pace snappy for the most part, but it slows down considerably in Orlando's scenes. Miyaka Cochrane has an endearing helplessness in the role, and Dennis Yen makes a good foil for him as elderly sidekick Adam, but Orlando is kind of a drip.
Maria Giere Marquis makes a bright Rosalind, though what's interesting in her performance is not her quick-witted quips but the strong sense she gives that she's carrying out this elaborate charade not just to mess with Orlando but because she's terrified of giving her heart away. Mike Delaney is smug and snakelike as Orlando's evil elder brother Oliver, and Alicia Stamps is brisk and no-nonsense as bureaucrat Le Beau.
Some of the funniest stuff in the show takes place in the background. Cassie Rosenbrock has some hilarious reactions as the buxom bartender Audrey (usually a shepherdess), taking cell-phone photos and leaving the room with a muttered "Ooookay" as Jaques starts the famous "All the world's a stage" speech. Jon Nagel has an amusing shtick of offering couples a menu of religions to chose from (including Satanism) as the rustic parson Corin. Pursued by Brandon Mears's desperately doting Silvius, country coquette Phebe is priceless in her ham-handed attempts to be seductive in her denim miniskirt and Uggs (costumes by Ashley Rogers), but Frasconi also gives her unexpected depth; there's a whole silent scene going on in her face at the end as she struggles to radically adjust her expectations.
As You Like It is often referred to as a pastoral comedy, and there's certainly nothing outdoorsy about the Impact version. The comedy part, however, is well taken care of.
As You Like It runs through March 30, 2013 at Impact Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit impacttheatre.com.
All photos: Cheshire Isaacs.