In the midst of its 2012-2013 season, Burning Coal Theatre Company has tackled William Shakespeare’s As You Like It head on. As though mounting a five-act, twenty-two character, Shakespearian comedy were not challenge enough for a local theatre in Raleigh, NC, fearless director Mark Sutch triple cast seven actors to carry all twenty-two parts. Mystical blue and green hues with shadows of leaves (Christopher Popowich, lighting design) dressed a simple, yet versatile, white stage. The stage was anchored by a wall of white cubes, which would eventually rotate out to form the trees of the Forest of Arden. With nametags separating each of the character’s costumes on trees flanking center stage, the imagery of a love-stricken forest was solidified and the multiple characters clarified (Natalie Taylor Hart, scenery design). The house lights dimmed and Lori Mahl entered to stand alone on the darkened stage and delivered a welcome from the Bard: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Cue the ensemble; they made their entrance in unison singing an opening verse, some playing instruments. When the welcome had been delivered, actors evolved into characters and the play began.

Though the ensemble of seven was small, as Shakespeare once said, “Like little body with a mighty heart” (Henry V, Act II Prologue), each character spoke and moved within the actor with its own spirit, no matter how quickly the change between characters occurred. Indeed, several actors ended up in conversations with themselves. Perhaps the funniest of these was Orlando’s wrestling match, complete with luchador mask and cape, with Charles, both characters played by Jade Arnold. Arnold’s young, strong Orlando battles and overcomes his cocksure – and much more French – Charles in the wrestling ropes, catching the eye of both Rosalind (Rebecca Bossen) and her villainous uncle, Duke Frederick (Tom McCleister). When the tyrannous Duke learns of Orlando’s parentage, he conspires with Orlando’s self-entitled older brother Oliver (Jeff Aguiar) for Orlando’s demise. Angered at Charles’ defeat and Rosalind’s affections for Orlando, the Duke banishes her to the forest to join her banished father, Duke Senior (also played by Tom McCleister), previously usurped of his title and banished by Duke Frederick. Rosalind, her cousin Celia (Lori Mahl), and the court jester Touchstone (John Allore) escape to the forest disguised as men to deter strangers from assaulting maidens from the court. In a series of mistaken identities, loves lost and won, and titles restored, comedy ensues.

With more contemporary presentation, Arnold’s cadence and comedic timing differed from his fellow male ensemble, and still folded seamlessly into director Sutch’s blend of modernized and traditional Shakespeare. Rebecca Bossen’s Rosalind was as lovely as she was shrewd, with all the giddiness of a teenager in love. With her one-of-a-kind voice, Lori Mahl captured the girlish devotion of Celia to Rosalind, and was perfectly suited for lowbrow, clever Phebe. The southern accent was a nice touch. As Le Beau, the foppish French attendant, and Audrey, lover of the court fool Touchstone, Steph Scribner was, in a word, hilarious. An easy candidate for an ingénue role, Scribner surprised the audience with her all-out attitude for the comedy in less acclaimed roles. Tom McCleister, Jeff Aguiar, and John Allore presented a triumvirate of excellence as members of the male ensemble. Their unified mastery of the language, fluency in relating the text, and versatility with each of their distinct roles deepened the message of every speech and decoded the language of Shakespeare, which can seem daunting to a modern ear. McCleister’s gave such gentleness to the banished Duke Senior that the actor was nearly unrecognizable as the hardened Duke Frederick, proud to a fault. Jeff Aguiar brought an element of inanity that allowed the selfish elder brother of Orlando to be endeared to the audience by Act V. Aguiar easily abandoned Oliver’s pride to become Sylvius, love-sick for Phebe. Sylvius morphed into the wise old shepherd Corin and then back into Sylvius during an impressive one-man repartee between the two characters in Act II. John Allore juxtaposed his unassuming presentation with the razor sharp wit and foolery of Touchstone, emphasizing his devilish sense of humor all the more. The actor’s devotion as old Adam to his young master Orlando won the hearts of all. Allore’s simple, eloquent delivery of Jaques’s famous speech in Act II with a unique and beautiful variation created a rare theatrical moment when applause is postponed by the awed silence of a grateful audience.

The hard work and dedication of a talented ensemble and an innovative production team makes this Burning Coal production of As You Like It a production worth seeing.

As You Like It continues through December 16th. For more details, please view the sidebar.