“As You Like It,” Shakespeare’s tale of outcasts who flee to the forest and proceed to ruminate deliciously on love, contains some of his most beautiful and clever writing. It’s one of my favorite plays, and after seeing productions ranging from bad on up I decided it was indestructible. But never, until opening night at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival on Saturday, have I seen “As You Like It” it in a version so clear I thought I was watching it for the first time.
First off, Matt Pfeiffer’s production hits where it really counts: not just in the way it sounds (great, especially with theater artist Alex Bechtel’s affecting new music) or looks (fun to watch and moving constantly), but in the way it feels. That feeling, coming from a great cast, has us fully in the forest of Arden with souls who seem hopelessly lost among their own yearnings. There’s melancholy in that, but also great warmth and good spirit and – here’s the thing – an overall feeling that we’re part of the conversations.
Have you ever been in love? Answer yes, and in your mind you’ll speak to this production as much as it does to you. Answer no, and you’ll find plenty to chew on regarding love as an elusive concept. Some of Shakespeare’s dialogue and word-play for “As You Like It” might go by so quickly it can be dismissed as nonsense. But not so much in Pfeiffer’s production, which delivers much of the back-and-forth as accessibly as I’ve ever heard it.
Listen to two veteran Philly-based actors and you’ll see what I mean. “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players,” says Ian Merrill Peakes as Jacques, who goes on to describe the seven stages of a man’s life. Peakes delivers one of the Bard’s great monologues while he sees these stages of man in his mind; with little more than quiet sincerity, he turns the riff into an aria.
“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool,” says Dan Hodge as Touchstone, outfitted by costume designer Devon Painter in a jester’s boat-like cap and a playful black-and-white jumpsuit. Touchstone has much to say as the clownish jester – some of it in word-play babble that can be confounding. But Hodge, a master at interpreting classics, knows just what should fly by and what should stick.
I use these two actors to describe the production’s clarity and its ability to draw you into a spell it conjures. But much of the cast exhibits these qualities in parts large and little: Zack Robidas as Orlando, the love-struck good guy banished in the forest and fearing he’ll never again see the object of his affection; Marnie Schulenburg as Rosalind, that love object, also banished in the forest and disguised as a young man who finds a way to test Orlando’s frankness. Other couples are chasing or rejecting their mates – all with their own takes on what love means and why it can illuminate or darken a soul. Esau Pritchett is a commanding presence as the banished duke who’s set up a royal court in a forest clearing; in a sense, he’s the cheery scout leader here.
Shakespeare wrote songs for “As You Like It” – the lyrics, not the music – and this production doesn’t use some of them. Instead, Alex Bechtel – a busy all-around theater artist I mentioned up top – has written songs fully in the spirit of the show, with an Elizabethan linguistic flair. He also gives at least one Shakespeare lyric about winter (sung by Alexander Sovronsky as a lord) a beautiful melody. When the singing begins here and there, the cast turns into its own orchestra – a talented group that can fulfill Shakespeare’s will in words as well as in song, accompanied by the instruments they play.
—“As You Like It” runs through August 6 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, on DeSales University campus, 2755 Station Avenue in Center Valley, a few miles north of Quakertown. 610-282-9455 or pashakespeare.org.
The cast of “As You Like It” performs in repertory, in Ken Ludwig’s “The Three Musketeers” at alternating performances. That show runs also through August 6. For Howard Shapiro’s review, click here.