As You Like It is a celebration of love; love as we hope it will be, love as it often is, and love as a harbinger of growth and redemption. The Shakespeare Theatre’s As You Like It is a veritable carnival of love; and of course, as Touchstone the Fool puts it, “We that are true lovers run into strange capers.” Acclaimed British director Michael Attenborough, in his American regional directing debut, with the able assistance of Associate Director Alan Paul, has taken the magic and mystery of Shakespeare’s high comedy and fashioned it into a valentine to the pleasures of love.
Orlando, our hero, has just the right combination of innocence, humor, athletic ability, and sheer besottedness, as played by Andrew Veenstra. As his wicked brother Oliver, Gregory Wooddell revels in his own hypocrisy with delightfully unsavory charm. Oliver is so jealous of his well-loved younger brother that he deprives him of education, work, and hope. When his gigantic yet genial Wrestler, Charles (well-acted by Ian Bedford) comes to warn Oliver that he does not want to actually kill Orlando in their planned match, Oliver notes “I had as lief thou didst break his neck as his finger.”
Orlando wins the match, and in the process the heart of Rosalind, but he still faces dangers. He is warned by a dapper courtier, LeBeau (Joel David Santner, in a gentlemanly and genuine performance), that he is not welcome at court. Worse, his faithful servant Adam adds that Oliver intends to burn down Orlando’s house with him in it. With the loyal Adam in tow, played with dignity and pathos by Jeff Brooks, Orlando escapes to the forest of Arden.
Back at court, we learn more about Rosalind (Zoe Waites) and Celia (Adina Verson), two intelligent and witty young women, who are as close as sisters. Unfortunately Duke Frederick (Timothy D. Stickney), Celia’s father, has banished Rosalind’s father, Duke Senior (also Timothy D. Stickney) to the forest of Arden for alleged treason.
When Duke Frederick orders Rosalind herself into exile, Celia determines to accompany her. Rosalind famously decides to dress as a boy, Ganymede, to prevent unwanted attention, while Celia will pose as his/her devoted sister, Aliena. The two girls, with the motley fool Touchstone (Andrew Weems, giddy in a Shriner hat) are off to the forest of Arden themselves.
Stickney excels in his two roles as the good Duke Senior and the bad Duke Frederick; he makes the distinctions clever and unmistakeable, and his vocal powers are majestic. Zoe Waites, as Rosalind, is superb, and Adina Verson, eyes wide with surprise and amazement, is an exceptionally talented Celia. Andrew Weems as Touchstone delivers one of the most comical performances of a Shakespearean clown I have ever seen.
Once in the forest, all are free to play with identity, learn about themselves, and encounter new people who challenge, amuse and sometimes fool them. Jacques (Derek Smith) is a droll melancholic who clashes with Orlando, laughs at Touchstone, and reveals, in the seven ages of man speech, that his spectacular sense of humor hides a very real depression. Smith’s performance, full of depth and insight, is one of the highlights of the production. Happy Anderson, as Corin, a shepherd, has a powerful physicality and wonderful comic timing as he tries to discourage his friend Silvius (Stephen Pilkington) who is head over heels in love with local shepherdess Phoebe (Valeri Mudek). Pilkington is a touching and devoted lover, and Valeri Mudek as Phoebe is laughter personified.
Phoebe falls in love with Rosalind, as Ganymede. Rosalind as Ganymede poses as Rosalind to help Orlando cure his love for Rosalind. Touchstone falls in love with local wench Audrey (a sort of Hee Haw goddess, played adorably by Tara Giordano); who has another suitor, local yokel William (Jonathan Feuer). Somehow all these relationships must be sorted out, probably by the clever Rosalind, and then the aged Sir Oliver Martext (Jeff Brooks) will be able to marry those who can figure out who they love, for what reason, and if their love will lead to marriage or simply cause them a spectacular migraine.
All the actors have wonderful moments. Orlando’s tears as he realizes his love for Rosalind are very heartfelt. Once Oliver repents, he and Celia make a delightful pair of lovers. William’s hayseed-drenched love for Audrey is a comic high point, as is Audrey and Touchstone’s May-December romance. Te’La Curtis Lee sings beautifully as Hymen, the goddess of marriage, and handles every moment of her time on stage with grace and poise.
Amiens (Matthew Schleigh) acts and sings with flair, especially in his scenes with Jacques. Adam (Jeff Brooks) is hilarious in his frustration as he demands from Orlando, “Why do people love you?” Todd Scofield as the First Forest Lord does excellent work in his scene with Duke Senior, as does Luis Alberto Gonzalez as Duke Frederick’s servant, Dennis. Jeff Brooks’ Sir Oliver Martext joins in the fun with decrepit verve, as he enters to marry the four couples. The Ensemble (Jonathan Feuer, Luis Alberto Gonzalez, Alex Piper, Theodore M. Snead, and Nathan Winkelstein) all pitch in merrily and add their own gifts to the evening’s entertainment.
Jonathan Fensom’s sets and costumes are sometimes minimalist, sometimes beautifully mythical, but always hospitable to transition and imagination. Robert Wierzel (Lighting Designer) has created a remarkable lighting environment to enhance the play. Steve Brush (Sound Designer/Original Music) and Thomas Newman (Composer) are to be congratulated for a truly lovely tapestry of sound and song. Karma Camp has choreographed a particularly rousing finale, and Robb Hunter’s work as fight director is first-rate in the initial wrestling match between Orlando and Charles.
The key to the play, is of course, Rosalind, one of Shakespeare’s greatest heroines. Complex, witty, and kind, she is one of the most complete personalities in Shakespeare, richly comic and yet also touching and sometimes sad. Zoe Waites explores every element of this extremely demanding role.
William Hazlitt wrote: “Shakespeare has converted the forest of Arden into another Arcadia, where they ‘fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.’ It is the most ideal of any of this author’s plays.” The forest of Arden has never been more enchanting.
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
As You Like It plays through December 14, 2014, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online, or call the box office at (202) 547-1122