Shakespeare in the rough: A look behind 'As You Like It'

by Christopher Q. McMullen-Laird | 11/9/01 6:00am

The Theater Department's production of Shakespeare's comedy "As You Like it" kicked off a two-week run at Moore Theater last night.

The play begins with Duke Frederick (Andrew Dahl '05) ruling his exiled brother's court. Duke Senior (Rob Strong '04), the rightful ruler, is living in the Arden Forest with a host of lords and followers. Rosalind (Alexis McGuinness '03), Duke Senior's daughter, has remained at the court because of her close friendship with Celia (Gwen Carroll '04), Duke Frederick's daughter. When Duke Frederick banishes Rosalind, the two girls disguise themselves as young lovers and leave for the forest with the court jester Touchstone (Henry Gummer '02). The remainder of the play takes place in the Arden forest, where trickery, love and confusion enliven the intricate plot.

Dartmouth's production transplants the setting to Edwardian America. The turn-of-the-20th-century Adirondack mountain villages, the summer home of New York City's upper crust, are the ideal setting for Duke Senior's court. The quaint and playful scenes from Shakespeare's Arden forest fit perfectly. The idea for the Adirondack setting came up in a design meeting earlier this year when Margaret Spicer, the show's costume designer, noticed a drawing of 19th century hunters. "I looked at the drawing and thought: that's it -- let's do it this way," she said . "It just fit."

She traveled to the Adirondack museum in September with the show's director, Paul Gaffney, to taste some local color before getting to work on the wardrobe.

Spicer received assistance from theater major Christine Mok '02, who designed the costumes for Duke Frederick's court, set in New York City. She created the costumes with the formal and austere setting in mind. The ideas came from hours of primary research and an aim for a fitting color scheme -- bitter purples, dense blues and, of course, black. All of the textures used for the performance are heavy and rigid.

Spicer worked on the Adirondack scenes, using warm-toned reds and browns. Some examples of the preparatory collages are hanging in the foyer of Moore Theater. With their rough idea on paper, the two ladies combed through the costume closets to pinpoint appropriate pieces. The costume shop created the missing pieces from scratch. After the production, the garments can live up to 20 years in costume storage, hidden in the entrails of the Hop. They emerge for various renovations if they fit into a future show.

Only Spicer and Carla Richters, the costume shop manager, can navigate the endless racks of blouses, skirts and suits. The "wall of shoes" is a mural of fishing boots, pink ballet slippers, paten-leather tux shoes and Reebok sneakers. Spicer and Mok combed through the collection and gathered a week's worth of clothes for each character to try on in the tedious initial fitting session.

During the session, the actor to be fitted stands under improvised stage lights while the designers step back in order to see them from a "real distance," the way they will be seen on stage. Once the primary decisions are made, hundreds of articles of clothing go to the shop for preparation.

After the necessary sizing and refitting sessions, each character's costume is hung in the dressing room. A ditty-bag, a hanging pouch with several pockets, accompanies each costume. Jewelry, socks, watches, glasses, caps and pipes -- they all could get lost and need to have a spot. After the costumes have been laundered and pressed, the costume ladies take inventory for each character, troubleshooting before the actors arrive for the run. The system works like a charm and keeps the players looking their best.

Dramaturgy, the art of researching and explaining a play, is a luxurious addition to this production. "We act as in-house critics, taking notes during rehearsals and trying to help shape the play" said Amy Strahler-Holzapfel, visiting dramaturge for the show. The director sifts through the feedback and decides which comments he will incorporate into the next rehearsal.

When the directors "start getting lost in all the details, you are trying to assess whether the original story is being told," Strahler-Holzapfel said. According to Strahler-Holzapfel, it is her job to find out what makes [the play "tick for the director" and capture the creativity on paper for others to read. The summary of her work is in the program notes.

Strahler-Holzapfel dramaturgy students spent hours researching the show's setting and familiarizing themselves with the historical context, compiling a stock of knowledge for the director and the actors to use. The study allows actors to understand their costume and their character better, and often the dramaturge can explain allusions, colloquialisms and Elizabethan vocabulary.

"You have to be well versed in the entire canon of Western literature," Strahler-Holzapfel said. "You're not just floating above, thinking deep thoughts."

Kathleen Cunneen, who teaches Theater 41: Stage Management -- perhaps the ultimate hands-on course -- also provided key insight for the production. Many actors, even veterans of the stage, have a limited understanding of the impossible difficulties that stage managers plow through. "You have to be keeping in the script, but you also have to keep one eye on the stage and you also have to look ahead to know what's coming up. You have to do three things at once -- which is impossible," Cunneen told one of her student stage managers before the first dress rehearsal.

The challenge now for the five students running the stage is to coordinate all technical aspects of the show: lights, scene changes, sound effects, special effects, props, entrances and exits. Each detail is meticulously planned and then written into the master script. Lighting and sound cues are preprogrammed in the computers prior to the first dry tech rehearsal, and then adjusted during the subsequent runs of the show.

Nothing happens on stage without the stage manager announcing it over the intercom. "YOU have the power," Cunneen said to her students. The process of "calling" a show -- reading the cues to the rest of the running crew -- is intense and uncomfortable at first, but after some practice, "you'll be like -- 'Oh, I get it!'" Cunneen said.

Five weeks is not much time to pull a show together, and "traffic management" becomes a real issue with a cast of 25 players. But the department doesn't pick modern plays with three-person casts to avoid the extra challenge. In fact, this fall, Paul has greenhorns (complete beginners) on the stage. "Here, our mission is to teach people how to do it," Gaffney said, and thus he has no reason to exclude the '05s.

Yesterday's performance served was a night that Gaffney has been working toward since auditions in early September. "What I have to do is, in effect, work backwards from opening night," he said.