To see a Shrewd Productions performance is to be ready for a surprise. Throughout the years, they have provided excellent productions of unique modern plays, and now they’re bringing this creative spark to the works of the bard, with their production of “As You Like It”. Not often heralded as one of Shakespeare’s better works, Shrewd Productions, and director Lily Wolff, have given it a life and spark rarely found in productions of the bard, utilizing bold techniques to elevate the play to new levels. The directors’ choices add surprising twists and turns to this classic story of a pair of exiled nobles finding love in the forests of Arden, creating one of the most original productions of Shakespeare in some time.
One element that may shock audiences early on is also one of the works’ greatest methods of success: completely blind casting. Women play men, men play women, and actors of all ages and ethnicities play roles independent of their station. What this does is allow the actors to give new dimensions to the characters, to add a certain spark of femininity or masculinity to a role that was once more typical, creating new dynamics between characters in the process. As one of play’s biggest problem is it’s plethora of characters, helping to show us these characters in new ways, taking the play in very different directions.
This casting creates great opportunities for their actors. Indeed, Jacques has never been better than in the hands of Molly Fonseca, who brings out a sensitivity in him that few versions reach. We find the sadness of his history in her stance, the way she looks at characters, in the way she speaks to others. In particular, the cynicism she brings beats so wonderfully against the gentle romanticism that Kriston Woodreaux brings to Orlando, turning gender norms on their heads.
Speaking of gender norms, no one plays with them more successfully than Julie Moore as Touchstone. Slick, sly, and constantly hilarious, her interactions with the other folks in the play are a highlight, especially once David Boss appears as Audrey. The moments between Moore’s Touchstone and Boss’s Audrey play on female-male interactions with remarkable wit, with her forceful masculinity playing against Boss’s comedic femininity to create some of the piece’s funniest moments.
With all the gender-defying theatrics, the most delightful relationship is the one between Robin Grace Thompson’s Celia and Shannon Grounds’ Rosalind. There’s a playful spark between the two, with Thompson’s sunny disposition and adorableness linking perfectly with Grounds’ more grounded charisma. Indeed, the two exhibit some of the best chemistry I’ve seen in ages, and with the sad look Thompson wears anytime Orlando, the object of Rosalind’s true affection, is mentioned, one can’t help but think that the director wanted to see these two together. It adds an entirely new element to a play that so many know backwards and forwards, and creates a classic romance that’s told as much through intonation and cadence as the text itself.
Shrewd’s production of “As You Like It” is pure addictive entertainment. Like “Hamilton” or “Firefly”, it’s composed of such a fresh collection of light, frothy, and seductive elements that, even as the play ends, you know you want to start the whole thing over again. With bold casting choices, great directorial decisions, and a cast of a lifetime, they’ve breathed sparkling new life into one of Shakespeare’s most staid plays, as well as creating one of the most entertaining theatrical experiences this critic’s had in years.
“As You Like It” is playing at the Trinity Street Theatre at First Austin Baptist Church through March 6. For more information, please visit Shrewd Productions’ website at shrewdproductions.com