“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” may be one of the better-known Shakespeare quotes, but it also happens to describe the ensemble of The New Renaissance Theatre Company’s As You Like It and The Life of Henry the Fift quite well. This past weekend I was able to enjoy a Shakespearean double whammy, with As You Like It on Friday afternoon and The Life of Henry the Fift (that’s “fifth” sans ‘h’) on Sunday, where this motley crew brought the Bard’s work to life. The productions begin with a quick rundown by the director/prompter, Andy Kirtland, on how Shakespeare was done way back when; scripts in hand. Since these shows are put on by The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project, the actors all have their designated scrolls on which are simply the last few words preceding their speech followed by their own lines—the actor’s task being to listen as closely as possible to what is happening in order to hear their cue lines. This serves as a delightful source of energy; the tension builds as you see the dedication on each actors face while intently listening for their cues. The prompter, clad in referee garb, aids any actor who loses their place and cries out, “help me!”, during the run.
At first, an audience member who’s never seen a production done in the old fashion might feel sorry for an actor who loses their place and needs a hand, but it honestly causes the text to feel more urgent. The actors are speeding through the script, using only the cues written by Shakespeare himself to inform emotional necessity—such as periods and commas marking a change of pace or thought—and should any actor begin slowing down, the prompter will shout, “pick up the pace!”, and on goes the show. I was surprised at how a full-length production of a history play like The Life of Henry the Fift was able to fly by, all because the actor’s main job is to navigate the text as swiftly as possible. At times I wouldn’t know exactly what was being said because of the speed, but the driving passion behind the words clued me into the context.
The set itself is nonexistent, relying on the beauty of the parks which host the show. Actors weave through the audience, who are mere feet away from the action. Though the costuming, done by Beth Kirtland, was simple, it seemed economical due to the many quick changes actors did throughout the shows. I was impressed by the work of the fight choreographer, Tonya Lynn, in one of the early scenes of As You Like It. When the charming Orlando (played by Nick Benninger), faces off against a foe, the fight was exciting and very well done. Joanna Getting was also a standout, with her forceful presence she was hilarious in both plays. However, this is truly an ensemble cast, and one person missing their entrance derails the show. The mounting tension worked best when the actors were nearly speaking over each other in anticipation, and this ended up creating a high-energy celebration of Shakespeare.
Don’t expect a high-class, codified Shakespearean play; these productions were a romp which felt very close to what I’m sure these plays were like back when the audiences were choosing between a seeing play and a bear fight. Actors are at the mercy of their prompter, and if a loud distraction occurs, such as a motorcycle riding by, the prompter would corral the ensemble into a rousing song until the noise passed. And let me tell you, a bunch of people dressed in Victorian garb riding on invisible bikes and singing “Born to Be Wild” is not something you want to miss! Be sure to bring folding chairs or blankets to spread on the grass, and possibly bug spray as the summer draws on. The next performance of As You Like It will take place Friday, July 13th at 6 pm in Schenley Plaza, followed by The Life of Henry the Fift on Sunday, July 15th at 4 pm in Brady’s Run Park. For show locations and more information, click here.
Categories: Archived Reviews