“As You Like It” has the backstabbing brother, the cross-dressing protagonist and the archaic language. It has the dramatic soliloquies of star-crossed lovers and the bawdy linguistic complexities of a court fool — all the stuff you overanalyzed and then swore off forever after high school English. “As You Like It” is Shakespeare.
Worse, it is Shakespeare comedy, which means you do not even get to pat yourself on the back for being the type of person who spends Friday night contemplating the great examples of humanity’s profound triumphs and tragedies.
But the show surprises by offering a revelation just as valuable as those gleaned from Hamlet’s madness or Macbeth’s ambition: Shakespeare, and by extension, life, is fun. The energy, talent, music and visual aspects of the Sarah Holdren’s ’08 production combine with Shakespeare’s script to deliver the hilarity and genuine feeling that are notably absent from most 8 a.m. English classrooms.
The celebration begins with a musical pre-show with cast members performing The Beatles classic “Love Me Do,” one of several upbeat, organic contemporary numbers that fill scene changes and intermission. The show as a whole is like an impossibly ideal jam session: The players are talented, cooperative and enthusiastic, and their music is cool enough to be improvised but good enough to be the product of intensive practice. By the middle of Act One, the audience cannot help nodding along.
The play begins in the illegitimate Duke Frederick’s court but shifts quickly to a forest filled with interwoven romances after his daughter Celia and niece Rosalind, child of the rightful duke, are forced to flee. Rosalind, disguised for safety as a poor young man, eventually discovers that her love Orlando is also in the woods and convinces him to woo her (still disguised) as a bizarre form of therapy for his own irrational infatuation.
Before the revealing of Rosalind’s true identity and inevitable joyous quadruple wedding, the audience is treated to a well-orchestrated variety of scenes, characters and complications. Many members of the relatively small cast play a variety of parts, allowing them to demonstrate impressive range. O’Hagan Blades ’10 is especially noteworthy for entertaining as both a devoted but portly old manservant and a bitchy shepherdess diva in the span of two hours, not to mention her cameo as a completely random but somehow delightful sheep. Other actors such as Ned Fulmer ’09, Tully McLoughlin ’11 and Jeremy Funke step out of comparatively serious roles to bring to life a WWF-style wrestler, a pimpish preacher and a scantily-clad “lonely goatherd” complete with a phallic walking stick.
The performance maximizes its limited resources beautifully in more than just casting. Director/costume designer/set designer Holdren creates a rich and dynamic space for her actors to explore with select but effective set and costume pieces that color and coordinate the playing space. The characters power through physically grueling blocking — sliding across the stage, running up stairs and venturing into the audience — in a way that engages and entertains their spectators.
The expressive physicality of the piece and the talent of the actors are crucial in easing understanding of the tricky language found in the script. Shakespeare clichés are openly acknowledged and poked fun at throughout the show, whether the melodrama of his lovers (Orlando outrageously collapses to the floor when he declares he will die without Rosalind) or the structure of his verse (Celia taps the iambic pentameter of Orlando’s love sonnets on her chest). The show’s self-awareness and active attempts to be more accessible successfully win over its contemporary audience.
Despite its playful, sometimes mocking tone, the show also provides genuine sentiment and several excellent dramatic performances. Christine Garver ’08 is comic, tragic and extraordinarily honest as Rosalind and Tommy Crawford ’09 plays an ambiguous, melancholy courtier with a dexterity especially apparent in his interpretation of the famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue.
Forget the footnotes and see the show to experience Shakespeare as it should be — human, relevant and entertaining. You’ll leave knowing what all the fuss is about.