An Evening with Shakespeare: Just The Way You’d Like It
When you hear “Shakespeare”, chances are you don’t automatically swoon with excitement. Most likely, you’ll think of theatre, dusty old British books, and probably reading Romeo and Juliet in your eighth grade English class. Even most theatre and English majors wouldn’t pick Shakespeare out of all their different options.
Enter: CAST, the Cambridge University American Stage Tour. This is a troupe of university-aged actors from the United Kingdom, traveling the United States to perform a stylized production of one of William Shakespeare’s plays. This year, it was As You Like It. They take the Shakespeare plays we wouldn’t think to watch, and make them something we understand and love.
While the performance here is coordinated by the English department, their performances draw in more than just English students. Theatre students will attend for an opportunity to see another group of actors, hear authentic British dialects, see how they work, and just enjoy being able to see a show they haven’t worked on. Last year the entire cast of Frostburg’s Mousetrap production attended the CAST performance.
But when the doors to Pealer Recital Hall opened on Tuesday evening, it was more than just English and theatre students who seated themselves; students and faculty from all over campus came, as well as quite a few locals to the city of Frostburg and nearby towns.
Upon arriving at the theatre, before any actor even set foot on stage, the atmosphere was being set—and not for the 1600s. We saw a near bare stage, save for a few simple papier-mâché style trees with shredded fabric curtains. The lighting was an intense purple-red wash. The music was something we may here today on the radio– Alternative rock, vaguely folksy style. If it wasn’t clear from this pre-show atmosphere that this wouldn’t be your father’s Shakespeare, it was clear when the cast marched on.
They entered to more of that modern-alternative music, wearing clothing straight out of a post-punk magazine. Within the opening scenes, we saw that the costumes distinguished characters between age, status, etc. The costumes also helped distinguish character changes—with nine actors and 15 characters, there was some doubling of roles.
The costume choices were just one brilliant way to easily show the audience what was going on. The lighting on stage shifted scene to scene, and helped distinguish not only place, but also mood. Drawing back and letting out the shredded curtains also transported us from location to location.
Even with these aides, it would still be hard to understand the language and the plot. But reading Shakespeare and seeing Shakespeare are two completely different things. While seeing actors in modern garb made the play more accessible (and much less of a turn-off than 1600’s era clothing,) that doesn’t mean audiences magically understand Shakespeare.
This is where the actors’ understanding and delivery of the lines becomes vital. This is a challenge actors are well aware of in any case, and CAST did not disappoint.
The high energy of the actors throughout all scenes was enough to keep anyone engrossed, and the delivery was powerful, whether it was a dramatic scene or a comedic scene. It was very clear that these actors understood what the play was about, what they were saying, and what was being said to them. Within minutes, characters and relationships were clearly established.
Nearly all of the language was kept to Shakespeare’s original script, but that was no issue. Actors’ body languages, gestures, and facial expressions filled in any gaps. The cast hilariously exchanged sarcastic looks, sighs, and inflection in a way that was recognizable to audience members. Over-the-top costume pieces, comedically modern props, and ridiculous additions—such as marker tattoos— also drove the point home.
It wasn’t all comedy, however. Lighting shifts, music changes, and ultimately, the actor, distinguished these moments from the rest, and stitched all the scenes together. While the comedy was big, loud, and involved a lot of facial expression or movement, scenes of romance were quieter, pulling focus down to only those involved. The flirting between characters seemed familiar—light digs, teasing smirks, and loaded glances. More dramatic scenes were more dimly lit, the characters much more subdued. They stuck to stronger movements, and a more direct delivery to the audience, or to whichever character they were speaking to, their expressions sullen.
The chemistry between the cast was genuine—it’s hard to have connections on stage with someone you dislike—and there were even moments actors seemed close to breaking character, laughing at themselves or their fellow actor. But, because of the comedic scenes it happened in, and the relationship between the characters, it ended up working nicely with the show.
While an evening in the theatre watching Shakespeare may not sound fun, it was a successful and well-enjoyed night, filled with energy, laughter, and yes, Shakespeare. CAST did a superb job of bringing the 1600’s to today, balancing Shakespeare with modern language, and balancing comedy with drama. While this was a one night only production, Frostburg tries to bring CAST to the university every September, so if you missed this years production, look out for next year.