“As You Like It” at New Swan Shakespeare Festival

No bald sopranos or rhinoceroses in sight, but “As You Like It” is evidence the Bard indulged in theatre of the absurd long before Ionesco. This just might be the most convoluted, improbable rom-com ever written, but New Swan Shakespeare Festival makes sense of the nonsense and maximizes the laughs in their delightful new staging of the play (at UC Irvine through Aug. 27). Adding to the fun is the Depression Era Chicago setting unique to this production.

The role of Rosalind requires verbal gymnastics on the scale of an Olympic athlete—with our heroine disguised as a man much of the time, while convincing her beau to pretend “he” is she and pitch the woo accordingly—and Steph Philo delivers a performance worthy of a gold medal. Nick Manfredi gives as good as he gets as the object of her affections, Orlando. Maribel Martinez (as Roz’s cousin Celia) and Adrian Alita (the melancholy Jacques) provide first-rate support.

If Sam Arnold is a touch disappointing as Touchstone, Kelsey Jenison practically steals the second half of the show making a bawdy buffoon of his love interest, Audrey the shepherdess. She’s just part of director Eli Simon’s “send in the clowns” approach to consistently tickle the funnybone while remaining faithful to the Bard. If it’s a little hard to conjure the forest of Arden in NSSF’s otherwise aesthetically pleasing venue, Simon’s inspired musicale finale injects more than a bit of magic into the summer night air.


This review was previously published on the now defunct media website, Examiner.com.

“The Grapes of Wrath” at Costa Mesa Playhouse

It should come as no surprise that the guy who wrote The Great American Novel, “The Grapes of Wrath” (at least in my opinion), also wrote a play that ranks alongside Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in its merit and timelessness. The guy is John Steinbeck, of course, and the play (adapted from his novel) is “Of Mice and Men.” It’s Shakespearean in its heft and profundity yet simple and down to earth, a play for all seasons that isn’t staged all that often these days. If you’re quick, you can catch a fine production of it at Costa Mesa Playhouse (through Aug. 21).

This is the tale of two migrant farm workers—Lennie, a sweet-natured simpleton who’s strong as an ox but doesn’t know his own strength, and George, his sharp-witted friend and guardian whose best efforts to keep them out of trouble often fall short. Director Michael Serna wisely lets the story, set in Central California during the Depression, tell itself; his set design and Ryan Linhardt’s lighting are simple but highly effective.

Peter Hilton anchors the play with a towering performance, appropriately, as Lennie; it’s a wholly credible portrayal that will pull you in and not let go. Angel Correa is solid, if not his match, as George. Kelsey Olson turns in a carefully nuanced performance as the bored farm wife who proves their undoing; Michael Dale Brown and Van Hudson Jr. are standouts in support.