Long Beach doubles down on Shakespeare

LBPH and LBSC offer very different streaming versions of "As You Like It" this month.

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A screenshot from Act I of Long Beach Playhouse’s streaming version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It . Left to right, top to bottom: Tyler Matthew Campbell, Brendan Kane, Isaac Ybarra, Chelsea Harvey, Eric Bermudez, Miguel Torres Cruz and Victoria Sasso

The end of summer may evoke pleasant memories of double scoops of ice cream, double-takes at the beach and double plays on the baseball field.

So it’s fitting that the Long Beach Playhouse (LBPH) and the Long Beach Shakespeare Company (LBSC) are both streaming William Shakespeare’s dramatic comedy “As You Like It” during September.

However, their versions are decidedly different, making it an interesting and doubly delightful theatrical month.

LB Playhouse
LBPH’s rendition of the play is adapted to our current Zoom-fueled quarantine time, with characters interacting on individual screens as if on a video conference.

LBPH has also split the play up into its five acts, each between 30 and 40 minutes long, that debut on successive weekends in September.

The play had originally been scheduled at the Playhouse this month, but with theatres still closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, director Michael Hernandez-Phillips moved the production online.

Madison Mooney, LBPH’s executive director, told the Signal Tribune that the virtual format offers unique opportunities.

“Since it’s an online performance, we have a few actors who live in New York involved,” she said.

“Something we obviously would not be able to do if we were doing live theatre.” Mooney added that after each act debuts, it will still remain available for viewing indefinitely.

Act I, released last Saturday, Aug. 29, introduces the characters speaking to each other in separate bubbles, their individual screens popping up as each enters a scene.

A screenshot from Act I of Long Beach Playhouse’s streaming version of Shakespeare’s As You
Like It . From left: Isaac Ybarra (Orlando) and Miguel Torres Cruz (Adam and Touchstone)

Their costumes are 1940-ish suits and dresses, with occasional modern incongruities like earbuds. Props include glasses of wine and a necklace that passes from one character’s screen to another’s through the magic of theatre.

In the first act, we learn that Orlando (an emotive Isaac Ybarra), youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys, feels angry and frustrated at being robbed of education and money by his elder brothers Jaques (Brendan Kane) and Oliver (Eric Bermudez) after his father’s death.

Soon it comes out that Orlando has challenged Charles (Kane), a wrestler in the Duke’s court, to a wrestling match for money. We also learn that the new Duke is the younger brother of an old Duke, who’s been banished to the Forest of Arden.

It gets exciting at this point as multiple characters discuss the impending wrestling match.

Before the match, Orlando also meets Rosalind (Chelsea Harvey), daughter of the banished Duke, and loses his words for a moment, which is funny to see on a Zoom-type screen as we surmise what’s going on because of the two actors’ facial expressions.

Rosalind’s cousin Celia (Victoria Sasso), the new Duke’s daughter, is also with her, acting as a chaperone so things don’t get too heated.

The virtually enacted wrestling match between Orlando and Charles is also strange to see– flattening a three-dimensional stage activity to a two-dimensional screen– but it works entertainingly well.

When Charles head-butts, Orlando falls back in reaction in his own screen while the five others watching make cringing or gleeful facial expressions, depending on their stake in the outcome.

The wrestlers also pummel each other, arms swinging across screens, with Orlando’s closed fist ultimately filling his screen while Charles falls over on his screen, knocked out cold as the other characters’ jaws drop in shock.

Perhaps because we’ve grown accustomed to Zoom events, it’s easy to get used to the format and its rhythm, though it’s sometimes disconcerting when an actor instantly appears in a scene or suddenly vanishes.

And just like in Zoom meetings, the actors often look not directly at each other but a bit off to the side, and sometimes appear to be reading. At one point, Tyler Matthew Campbell, who plays both Dukes, speaks to other characters from inside a car.

Despite the strangeness, seeing these nimble actors’ reactions up close makes this online format of the play compelling and engaging. I am made curious to watch each subsequent act– which are mostly set in the Forest of Arden– as they debut.

Act I ends with Rosalind banished to the forest like her father with Celia opting to go with her, along with a court jester (a likeable Miguel Torrez Cruz) just for kicks. As two females who are inexplicably planning to carry their jewelry and wealth, they feel cautious but excited. They decide Rosalind will dress as a boy and they rename themselves.

“To liberty, and not to banishment!” Celia declares.

Tune in for Act II on Saturday, Sept. 5.

LB Shakespeare Company
LBSC’s version of “As You Like It”– available for streaming beginning Friday, Sept. 4– is more traditionally presented and also designed for educational purposes.

The play is the third staged production of LBSC’s current “A Host of Heroes” season.

From left: Nick Napoli (Orlando) and Erin Manker (Rosalind) in Long Beach Shakespeare
Company’s “As You Like It,” available for streaming on Sept. 4. (Photo by Luis Aranda)

“This Shakespearian rom-com reminds us all that love and goodness come in all shapes and sizes,” LBSC describes.

Producer Dana Leach told the Signal Tribune that LBSC’s filmed stage version of the play will become part of a fee-based education package for teachers as of Oct. 1, thanks to a grant from the RuMBa Foundation of Long Beach, a local nonprofit that helps students access the arts.

“Education packets will include a link to our streaming production, a program, a study guide complete with writing prompts and activities, and some productions will also include a 40- to 50-minute lecture from our Artistic Director Brando Cutts,” Leach said.

The company used what it learned from filming its staged production of Oscar Wilde’s “A Woman of No Importance” in July to improve its streaming video of “As You Like It”, Leach said.

See Related: Theatre review: LB Shakespeare Company’s A Woman of No Importance

“We even made a version of the program that is easier to read and print for patrons,” she said.

The company wants to keep bringing theatre to its patrons, who still cannot attend in person due to coronavirus restrictions, Leach said.

“It is filmed like you are watching a live theatre experience,” she said. “It is a fully staged production with sets and costumes.”

The cast and crew rehearsed online and then came together briefly at the Helen Borgers Theatre at 4250 Atlantic Ave. to stage the play with what LBSC describes as “a long and sometimes never-ending list of protocols to keep everyone safe.”

Theatres are not yet on statewide lists for possible reopening and have been given summer 2021 as a realistic timeframe, Leach said, adding that she’s therefore pleased LBPH has an offering as well.

“I’m happy they are doing something, too,” Leach said.“Funny that we are doing the same show, but it’s a nice way to see different ways Shakespeare can be done.

LBSC’s “As You Like It” will be available for streaming for a $35 ticket per household from Sept. 4 to Oct. 4 and includes a downloadable program PDF. Visit lbshakespeare.org or call (562) 997-1494 for a ticket and information.

LBPH’s streaming Act II of “As You Like It” debuts at 8pm, Saturday, Sept. 5, at lbplayhouse.org for a requested donation of $5. Act I is still available to view and Acts III, IV and V will debut during successive weekends in September.