PICT Classic Theatre’s 25th season is perfect timing for a Shakespearean comedy

By Sharon Eberson

In the words of Shakespearean heroine Rosalind, “Time travels in diverse paces with diverse persons.”

That’s from As You Like It, and is followed by the speed in which time flies, when it meanders and when it stops entirely.

It’s possible that for Shakespeare, as it has been for theatermakers and audiences lo these many pandemic months, time seemed to stand still. And when it was deemed safe to practice art in a crowd again, well, you can just imagine that giddy feeling of opening night.

As You Like It, which at 7:30 p.m. Thursday opens the 25th-anniversary season of PICT Classic Theatre, is a comedy of wit, whimsy, hostile takeovers, and gender-bending schemes. In Rosalind, Master Shakespeare has created a character who, while in disguise, reveals the true nature of not only herself but all those in her orbit.

The play is presumed written in 1599 — six years after 15,000 Londoners died of the plague, and thousands more perished outside the city. An escape to the pastoral setting of As You Like It’s Forest of Arden must have seemed heavenly to those city dwellers.

Seems like it would be a nice place to visit today, too.

As in most things, we can look to the great playwright for touchstones to what’s happening in the present day.

For PICT, when the current pandemic hit in March 2020, the company had the relative luxury of being between shows, following the Bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Alan Stanford, artistic and executive director of PICT, chose to wait a month while planning his next move.

Catherine Kolos, the company’s general operations manager, suggested that already planned lectures by Stanford on five major Irish playwrights would work well online. Thus began a steady Friday afternoon of webinars that have continued to this month.

But now, finally, PICT’s tight-knit company is home, in WQED’s Fred Rogers Studio in Oakland, and ready for a live audience.

The space once occupied by Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is Stanford’s ideal, he said, because he subscribes to the minimalist aesthetic championed by Peter Brook. Lighting designer Keith Truax and costume designer Joan Markert help create the perception of a French court as the play opens and the Forest of Arden, where most of As You Like It occurs.

Zoe Abuyuan, who was born around the same time as PICT, plays the dual roles of Rosalind and Ganymede. There are courtly shenanigans, a deposed duke, and a lovesick shepherd among the characters, but the play centers on Rosalind, disguised as the male Ganymede, training Orlando (Gabe DeRose) how to woo her.

Got all that?

Zoe Abuyuan (Rosalind) and Gabe DeRose (Orlando)  
Photo Credit is PICT Classic Theatre. 

While rehearsing as Ganymede, it first occurred to Abuyuan that she was actually playing three roles, including Ganymede pretending to be a girl like Rosalind.

The role was at the top of Abuyuan’s wish list when it came her way, and Stanford had chosen the play for her.

“It had to be Zoe,” the director said.

A few days before curtain up, she couldn’t stop smiling. “I go to rehearsal, and I never want to leave,” she said. “I’m living my dream.”

The Centerville, Ohio, native and Stanford first met during auditions for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which missed the pandemic shut down by a couple of weeks. At the time, Stanford cast two actresses new to his mostly resident company, including Saige Smith.

Abuyuan had been home in Ohio when she saw a Playbill listing for auditions. “I was only a four-hour drive away, and I always had a love for Shakespeare. So I drove out for the audition, and that was it,” she recalled.

Stanford said Abuyuan won the part of Hermia in the room.

That experience was life-changing, she said. After spending five years in New York, both training and auditioning, she is ready to move to Pittsburgh and hopes to become part of the theater community here.

And after his experience directing Abuyuan in Dream, Stanford knew he had the star of the show that would launch his company’s 25th year.

PICT Classic Theatre began as Pittsburgh Irish & Classic Theatre, founded by Andrew Paul and Stephanie Riso. Stanford, who first came here as an actor with the Gate Theatre of Dublin, was given the reins of the company eight years ago.

Choosing a Shakespeare comedy to start a season like no other, with COVID protocols firmly in place, well, “It had to be,” Stanford said.

PICT has gathered a cast of 16, “and this is the perfect play for the core group, but you don’t do As You Like It unless you have your Rosalind. And now she’s moving to Pittsburgh; she’s permanent family now,” Stanford said of the actress, sitting across the table from him in a Squirrel Hill coffee shop.

“I’m very happy about that,” Abuyan said.

The qualities that make her right for the role, the director said, include, “The one thing you hope for in an actor — she’s completely uninhibited. She’s not afraid to try anything.” Then he described how that translates into Rosalind and why he has other roles in mind for Aubyuan.

“She has a fertile imagination, and if you throw an idea at her, she’ll run with it. But also, she has a wonderful sense of discipline. It’s not random. It’s focused and controlled,” he said.

Describing his “old school” methods and how Abuyuan fits the mold, he added, “Laurence Olivier famously said you build a corral, and you don’t go outside of that corral with the character, but inside, the sky’s the limit. And Zoe is exactly that kind of actor.”

Besides Abuyyan, Stanford figured “50 percent of the play cast itself,” with veterans such as Ken Bolden, Karen Baum, James FitzGerald, Martin Giles and Jerreme Rodriguez, plus the return of Saige Smith and Dylan Marquis Meyers, who previously played Romeo for PICT. DeRose, as Orlando, is new to the company, along with Dylan C. Wack as Touchstone and Christen Krasch, a senior at Point Park, in multiple roles.

Sam Lothard, one of the busiest actors in Pittsburgh these days, plays Charles the Wrestler. Others in the cast are Michael Patrick Trimm, Angela Hsu, Kaitlin Kerr, Ryan Patrick Kearney, and Sean Lenhart.

For the newcomers, Abuyuan recalled what it was like for her, coming to a new city and a new company as part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“I was incredibly nervous to start out because I was surrounded by all of these experienced actors — I never worked with more talented people in my life,” she said. “But very quickly, I realized how supportive an environment it is, and how playful it is, and I felt so free to just try anything and be goofy. And thankfully, we were doing a comedy, so I found so much freedom in this company of people.”

During the conversation, Stanford often mentioned his legacy and preparing the company for its next phase without him at the helm. In July, PICT Classic Theatre named Sharon McCune as associate producer of the current season.

McCune recently hosted a PICT Educates online discussion on “Native Voices in Theatre with Randy Reinholz,” the producing artistic director of a company dedicated to new plays by Native Americans.

As Stanford looks ahead, he would like PICT to become a haven for new voices and for PICT Educates — including those interactive webinars and young artist opportunities — on equal footing with PICT productions.

On Nov. 21, at 2 and 7 p.m., the company’s Expand the Canon Series takes PICT across Fifth Avenue to Rodef Shalom Congregation for a reading of An Improbable Fiction by James DeVita, directed by Robin Walsh.

All of these endeavors are based on a mission that includes “serving the Pittsburgh community by examining current social issues through the lens of the classic text.”

And that brings us back to the classic at hand.

Stanford allows that he is known for presenting Shakespearean works “unconventionally,” such as minimalist staging and, in this case, changing the order of some events in As You Like It.

“But it’s always all Shakespeare,” he said, emphasizing the name. “You can’t improve on Shakespeare.”

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