Behold: the Shakespearean chick flick!
In As You Like It, Shakespeare created the archetypal romantic comedy. Its lovers are not as serious as those in Romeo and Juliet, and its comedy is not as broad as in The Comedy of Errors. Instead, the play trots out a familiar collection of addlepated lovers, wisecracking best friends and comic subplots. Its sweetness makes it the perfect Shakespearean date night.
Of course, to Shakespeare, it was a "pastoral comedy"—a play in which noble characters leave their natural habitat to gambol in an idyllic natural world, shedding the formality and strictures of courtly life as they go.
In As You Like It, now onstage at Arizona Repertory Theatre, that exodus into nature is largely involuntary, as various characters are propelled by fiat or fear into the Forest of Arden.
Cody Davis plays the villainous Duke Frederick, who has usurped the throne from his elder brother, Duke Senior (Clay McInerney), and exiled him into the forest.
In another plotline, handsome young Orlando (James Conway) impulsively enters a wrestling tournament. He wins the heart of Count Senior's daughter, Rosalind (Michelle Luz), but he defeats the man who is Duke Frederick's champion, Charles (played in a gleefully trashy way by Aaron Blanco). Fearing the duke's wrath, Orlando also flees to the Forest of Arden.
Rosalind is fast friends with Frederick's daughter Celia, performed here by the winning Angela Bray. Frederick banishes Rosalind, and the two young women depart to—you guessed it—the Forest of Arden. To protect themselves in their travels, they dress as shepherds, and Rosalind disguises herself as a man.
If it sounds complicated, don't worry. There's little need to keep it all straight in your head; these storylines (and more!) are little more than pretext to let the characters loose in the forest.
Much of the comedy is built around Rosalind's cross-dressing. When she meets her beloved, Orlando, in the woods, he doesn't recognize her. Disguised as a young man, she convinces him to practice his wooing with her, telling him to call her Rosalind and treat her as if she were a woman.
Conway's Orlando is an openhearted, passionate dope, precisely what's required for a character who fills a forest with love poems but can't recognize his beloved. Rosalind feels liberated by her male garb, and Luz gives her an engaging, feisty energy. This production avoids the potentially homoerotic undertones of their interactions by suggesting that few people are truly taken in by her disguise.
Meanwhile, Rosalind's affections are unwittingly courted by the shrewish shepherdess, Phebe (Megan Davis). (These cross-dressing plotlines were even more complicated in Shakespeare's day, when male actors played the female roles.)
Director Brent Gibbs does an excellent job of making these complexities irrelevant, focusing instead on the simple relationships of the story. You may not recall one noble's connection to another, but in each moment, the important details are all made clear.
Among the great challenges of As You Like It are its archaic language and cultural references. The characters enjoy extended, intricate exchanges of wit that are almost incomprehensible to modern viewers. The young student performers make clear how clever their characters know themselves to be, yet these passages largely fall flat.
However, the production is so fresh and contemporary that it more than compensates for these lulls. Lines of dialogue are given new contexts that provide surprisingly modern resonances, and whole characters are given a new approach: Touchstone (Karl Hussey) is no longer a motley-wearing fool, but Rosalind's dapper, fey sidekick. That particular change does muddle the subplot about Touchstone's now-perplexing quest to marry unsophisticated country girl Audrey (Chrissy Tolley), but it gives new significance to a line suggesting their marriage will not last more than two months.
Costume designer Ruth A. George has dressed the characters in garb that suits their personalities, rather than adhering to a consistent style or time period. Oliver looks like an evil bureaucrat in his slate gray suit and bowler hat, whereas Orlando wanders around in a T-shirt and skinny-leg jeans. The country folks (including Leanne Whitewolf Charlton as elderly shepherd Corin, and Connor Kesslering as Phebe's endearing if milquetoast suitor, Silvius) look like 18th-century pastoral woodcuts. The awkward, social-climbing Lady Le Beau, played by the hysterically funny Anna Lauren Farrell, wears a flowing black dress and a lisp-inducing piece of orthodontic headgear.
Peter Beudert proves that effective stage design need not be elaborate. His towering wall of tiles and movable chain-link fencing suggest a pitiless, urban court. When the action moves to Arden, he evokes the trees with shipping-pallet-like panels of wood; swirls of oak leaves—made of embossed copper—are lowered from the ceiling.
Some Act 1 moments are perhaps too heavily shadowed by the lighting designed by Dave Carr, but Carr generally offers a wonderful autumnal palette, cold at court and warmly amber in the forest.
The cast is strong across the board. In addition to those already mentioned, Kevin Black's performance as the aging servant Adam is both touching and rife with physical comedy, while Chris Karl brings an oddly appealing, avuncular quality to the comic misanthrope Jaques.
The original music by composer Matt Cordon, who appears onstage as the musician Amiens, has Nick Drake-influenced underscoring. Cordon's beautiful settings of Shakespeare's songs, accompanied by guitar, provide moments of introspective respite from the general romantic antics.
When Karl, as Jaques, delivers the play's most famous monologue—"All the world's a stage," etc.—he glosses over the passage's nihilistic view of mankind. Instead, he seems to simply relish the poetry of the words. That's an understandable choice for a play that, even with autumnal melancholy in the air, proudly declares the innocence of nature and the sure (though twisting) path of true love.