Along Germantown Avenue in Mt. Airy is the home of Philadelphia’s own Quintessence Theatre Group. When the theatrical pieces fit so perfectly, the public needs to know. According to the program note of Alexander Burns, Artistic Director, Quintessence is “…dedicated to the performance and adaptation of epic works of classic literature and drama for the contemporary stage, which ignites the mind through the power of the actor, design and spoken word. Quintessence Theatre exists to develop and produce theatre which is immediate and necessary, and that strives to attract new audiences to the art form by challenging its artists and audiences alike to consider what is essential in theatre and in human nature.” Currently running in rotating repertory are two Shakespeare works AS YOU LIKE IT and RICHARD II. The same cast of thirteen men will undertake both through November 8th. This is a group of creative theatre professionals who walk the walk and talk the talk. Their mission is important to those who love theater, and their vision is clear, resulting in not to be missed, must be supported, theater.
AS YOU LIKE IT is a comedy. Two and a half hours seem like moments, as the entertainment never stops once begun. For those who are not aficionados of Shakespeare there are familiar plotlines of feuding families, banishment, secrets between friends, disguises, forest hiding places, and so much more. This is a complex tale of good and evil, brothers at odds, sisterhood, family ties, disguises, best friends, and children escaping the governance of parents to make their own way. In the more dramatic portion of the play, Duke Frederick banishes his brother Duke Senior who establishes a pastoral forest life with a band of men. Later Frederick banishes Duke Senior’s child Rosalind who has fallen in love at first sight with Orlando, youngest son of Sir Rowland. Celia refuses to allow her cousin, who is more like her sister, to be banished alone, so goes with her, taking along the court jester Touchtone. Out of concern for their safety, Rosalind disguises herself as a male. As Charles, Orlando’s brother, also wishes to harm him, Orlando too flees into the forest. In the forest they all meet and the fun and games ensue. Synopsizing the story is much less compelling than seeing it, but it doesn’t hurt to read about the plot points before going to any Shakespeare play. There are jokes, physical humor, ballads, and playfulness with the audience, and that never ceases, even during the four interludes, or intermissions.
There are no minor roles in this production, since those who might have less stage time in single roles play multiple roles. This show is perfectly cast with a traditional all male ensemble of actors. Paul Hebron, as both evil Duke Frederick and kindly Duke Senior, presents characters so different from one another that it is difficult to believe the same actor is both. He is dark and angry and then free spirited, kindly and empathetic. James-Patrick Davis is Jacques who delightfully delivers the most famous speech in the play. With a nod to the styling of Jeff Goldblum, his character is quirky, dryly humorous, and immanently intellectual. As Adam and Corin, Stephen Novelli portrays distinctly different aged men with a broad brush and the nuances to allow the audience the notion that there are multiple actors in these roles.
Ashton Carter (Phoebe) embodies the idea of bringing Shakespeare to the people. Carter’s Phoebe is a bold, brash, Broad Street Beyoncé. Connor Hammond is Le Beau and a lovable lovesick Silvius. Lee Cortopassi sings, dances, and acts with gusto in multiple roles. Carlo Campbell adds song, strength, humor, and drama in just the right measure with multiple roles. Matt Tallman brings Oliver to life with duality and clarity. He is cruel then kind, jealous then jovial, combative then calm. Andrew Betz (Celia) brings subtle humor, clarity of language, and fine use of feminine wiles to the stage. The melodious vocal talents of Betz, along with Tallman, light up the final interlude. Alexander Harvey becomes Rosalind as well as Rosalind becomes Harvey, who combines coquettish girlishness with strength, resolve, compassion and great wit. Harvey commands this difficult role with seeming ease. There is sizzling chemistry everywhere between Harvey’s Rosalind and the other players.
Alan Brincks (Orlando) is charming and carefree in his interpretation. With youthful exuberance, a trusting soul, and wide-eyed love, he is a breath of fresh air with every moment on stage. Brincks’ stage fight with Campbell is action packed and intense.
Not to diminish the performance of any others, Sean Close as Touchtone claims his share of stage time with exquisite comedic timing, a relaxed nature, and enhanced audience engagement. Close is a scene stealer in all of the best ways possible. He brings alive the comedy. His physical comedy is perfection, bawdy and bold, with all of the necessary nods to those things Shakespeare would most want to see in Touchtone. As the ‘Divine’ better half of the partnering of Touchtone and Aubrey, Ryan Walter comes alive once released from the character of Dennis. Outrageous, gorgeous, and playful, the coupling of Touchtone and Aubrey is a marriage of actors made in comedy heaven.
The highlights of the play are too many to list, and should be experienced. The audience giggled, tittered, and laughed out loud. Even those who appeared slow to warm to the Shakespearean language were smitten within the first scene. In modern dress, the actors are neither buried beneath, nor inhibited by, Elizabethan garb, and therefore further free from the posturing sometimes seen in this form of classical theater. The set is scaffolding, giving a playground feel to the upstage area. The stripped away aspects allow the acting and story to shine. The direction is invisible, as all expert direction should seem. This makes actors comfortable with their task, in their space, and within their characters.
From the first utterance to the last dance, AS YOU LIKE IT was indeed every bit liked, if not loved by the audience in attendance, who rightfully stood and cheered at the close. Plays are meant to be seen and experienced, not read. The classics are so often read and not seen. Support the classics with a trip to Quintessence Theater Group’s production of AS YOU LIKE IT to see this gem of a show at this jewel of a theater.
If Shakespeare’s language is not for you
The humor here will still shine through,
This play will make you laugh and smile,
Enjoy the story for a while.
If plays and theater are your bag,
You’re amused when you see men in drag,
Your dreams and wishes have come true
AS YOU LIKE IT is for you.
AS YOU LIKE IT
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Alexander Burns
October 11, 2014 – November 8, 2014
Quintessence Theatre Group
The Sedgwick Theater
7137 Germantown Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19119