It may indeed be "As You Like It," but it's not likely to be as you expect it.
The most ardent theatergoers should be surprised when the public spaces of ImaginOn become a theater for Arden as of Friday night.
The young lovers will really be young, the right age to run away from the court of a repressive duke and head into the forest. The whole production of Shakespeare's folksy comedy will be shorter, darker and more complex than this story usually seems.
Fittingly enough, Matt Cosper directs this story about people suspended between youth and maturity, folks who appear in disguise before revealing their true selves.
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Cosper's next birthday will be his 30th, so he sympathizes with both carefree young characters and those who've had sobering experiences. And he has maintained a dual theatrical identity for years: He slips between the avant-garde (with Barebones, the Farm and most recently with Machine Theatre) and the confines of Children's Theatre of Charlotte, which is doing its first mainstage Shakespeare in years.
"No matter what theater I work for, I'd be directing the same play in my head," says Cosper. "Whether it's for teenagers here or for people in their 20s and 30s at Machine Theatre, my interests are the same.
"This show is about coming of age, moving from an ultra-restrictive court into a world where everything is possible. That's not always fun, and it's why this play appeals to teenagers. It asks, 'What will you be, when you're out there in the jungle?' It ends on a note of celebration, but there's also ambiguity: One of the leading characters goes off to live in a cave. There's melancholy here, too."
Making a living
Cosper understands Children's Theatre audiences: He started as an actor in CTC's high school ensemble and returned as a stage manager after graduating from Greensboro College in 2003. "They said 'Whoof! You're not much as a stage manager, but you are a good actor/director. Try that!'" he recalls. He has managed to cobble together a living in theater ever since, briefly in New York but mostly in Charlotte.
He also understands how to shave Shakespeare down for 90-minute presentations. He cut both "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" that way for tours Children's Theatre sent into Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
"'Hamlet' became a kind of suspense drama," he says. "'Macbeth' was more successful (artistically). We went to an inner-city school on the first day of the tour, and the audience was on its feet, eating it up. They got it at once."
Scenery? Hardly any
The audience will be on its feet for "As You Like It," and not just at the curtain call.
Ticketholders will get a preshow speech explaining the process. (Basic rule of thumb: "If you can't see, move.") Act 1 will take place on the mezzanine level outside the McColl Theatre. "That act is about conspiracies and tensions, so it should feel claustrophobic," says Cosper. Then Act 2 moves downstairs to the freer confines of the forest of Arden.
Scenery will be almost nonexistent - Children's Theatre shares space with the Public Library and can't leave set pieces in place - but characters will have props and costumes. The cuts include the songs, a few minor characters and some of the period comedy.
Cosper has cast only two adults, both as the oldest characters. Jef Bailey will play gentle Duke Senior and his usurping brother, Duke Frederick; Barney Baggett will be Adam, the amiable old servant, and the sardonic savant Jaques, who delivers the famous Seven Ages of Man monologue.
The overall intent is to make the play feel modern yet timeless. Shakespeare didn't mind anachronisms, Cosper notes, "so we don't either. We'll play classical music to set a tone, but pop music, too. We're aiming for something universal."