Let's just rename this Gina Leishman Month. The composer has been busy, creating new scores for two music-heavy shows: Mother Courage at Berkeley Rep, and CalShakes' As You Like It at the Bruns. What's interesting is how in both cases she has composed with an ear not to the refined beauty of some of her earlier work although the music is often lovely but to something more raw (Courage) or earthy (As You Like It). The two shows couldn't be more different in their style and staging, yet in both Leishman's music gives them real people having real emotional reactions anger, flirtation, longing, disdain.
At the Rep, director Lisa Peterson uses the same David Hare translation of Brecht's Mother Courage that Shotgun did a few years ago, but that's where the similarity ends. Visually, she's channeling Brecht much more than the Shotgunners did. From her casting to Rachel Haucks' set design, this show is like stepping back to prewar Berlin, even if there are modern-dress elements (is Courage really wearing a fanny pack?) and the peddler's cart is a stripped-down military jeep.
Set during the Thirty Years' War, Brecht's story of an enterprising woman making a life for herself and her motley children by selling things to the combatants is always going to feel long. The action takes place over several years, and face it: That cart just keeps circling the stage no matter what you do. But Peterson has some sharp actors, especially Ivonne Coll as Courage and Katie Barrett as camp follower Yvette. While Coll is fantastically gruff and intense, Barrett is the woman Yvette was written for. She's stunning with her deliberately nasal-then-growly voice and staring eyes, especially on the song "Fraternization," even before she clambers awkwardly onto the piano. The rest of the cast is solid it's novel seeing Jarion Monroe play a character straight although Brent Hinkley goes so far for the laugh that he almost seems to be in another show.
Peterson's set reflects Brecht designer Caspar Neher's work, down to the striped curtain, the stark lighting, and even the writing on the walls and doors. Making it look so much like the original might have reinforced how Brecht's antiwar protest is as relevant today as it was when it was written.
The night I saw As You Like It at CalShakes, coyotes in the hills behind the Bruns Amphitheater prefaced the managing director's welcoming remarks with their own. They might well have been yipping, "Everyone run away to the forest!," because that's what happens in Shakespeare's tale of love, banishment, and cross-dressing. The court is full of bored, bitchy thrill-seekers, the forest of Arden with disgraced but honorable nobles and their wayward children. It's hard to understand why any of them would want to go back to court, because they make living in the woods look so appealing. A bunch of lords in evening dress and combat boots, sharing fresh-roasted meat with Gypsy musicians? Who needs the sterile confines of court? Especially when the woods are full of trees on which Orlando can pin his mash notes to Rosalind, who he doesn't realize is running around dressed as the boy Ganymede, and when the shepherds and shepherdesses are so appealing.
The difference between court and forest is clarified in an interchange between the shepherd Corin and the jester Touchstone at the top of the second half. A throwaway anywhere else, this moment is big fun here, with Dan Hiatt's Touchstone explaining quite seriously to his new friend that the fancy perfume the other has described as desirable is in fact "the anal discharge of a cat!" In one of the most physically engaging shows I've seen Jon Moscone direct, As You Like It is filled with charming moments as the actors navigate the leaf-strewn and tree-heavy set.
The knockout in a reliably excellent cast is Susannah Schulman, who tends to be used at CalShakes as virtuous and uptight (Nicholas Nickleby, The Seagull). Rosalind is at least one of those things, but a lot more, too, and what a pleasure it is to watch Schulman really let it out. Rosalind likes being Ganymede a lot more than her friend and cousin Celia likes living in exile; the first is swaggering around interfering with other people's lives, the latter suffering because she agreed to run away from her comfortable life to keep Rosalind company. Julie Eccles invests her bright socialite Celia with a nicely grave undertone of sadness.
But it isn't a lasting sadness; this is one of Shakespeare's most happily-ended plays, with everyone married and dancing at the end. It has Andy Murray delivering the famous "All the world's a stage" speech, a beautifully built fight from Dave Maier, excellent chemistry between both the heroine and her swain, and a clever device that lets L. Peter Callender play both the kind, banished duke and his power-mad brother. Why leave this musically enchanted forest indeed?
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