As You Like It
Four years ago, Kent Thompson, then the artistic director at the Denver Center, staged a magical production of As You Like It. I remember it in clear, drifting pastels—gorgeous costumes and set, a transcendently beautiful Rosalind, and an interpretation that emphasized both the magical properties of love and the play’s underlying philosophical currents.
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival version couldn’t be more different. A program note refers to the pastoral tradition in Elizabethan literature, which saw the countryside as a place of redemption and heavenly peace where shepherds tended their flocks and shepherdesses were courted far from the greed and jostling of life in the courts. “Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,” says the exiled Duke Senior in As You Like It, “And this our life, exempt from public haunt,/ Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,/ Sermons in stones, and good in everything.” The program suggests a rough parallel with the American myth of the old West, though of course without all the gunslinging and raging testosterone.
The production comes with leathers and cowboy hats, and director Carolyn Howarth has employed the talents of composer Sam Misner and a group of excellent musicians-actors to provide an energetic, life-affirming, rockabilly rhythm for the songs interspersed through the action.
Where Thompson’s version had a haunting, wistful beauty, this one is sturdier, more contemporary, and more down-to-earth. The humor sometimes winks through the action, inviting the audience to admire or laugh at a specific contrivance. “Don’t get too serious,” the wink says. “We and you know you’re just watching a play.” Howarth has been tasked with setting this paean to fresh air and the open countryside on the festival’s small indoor stage rather than the outdoor Mary Rippon, and she has a truncated cast of eight performers, most of them playing more than one role.
And it all works, providing one of the most delightful evenings of theatre I’ve had in a long time. Here are some of the reasons:
The music, which sets the celebratory tone of the evening, enhancing specific scenes and deepening the central theme of love.
Tech: The plain-looking set unobtrusively serves the action, as do the costumes—both those reminiscent of traditional cowboy movies and those that cheerfully confound expectation, such as the bright red bowler sported by brooding Jaques.
Howarth provides a plethora of creatively surprising moments, including the way her actors handle the dangerous wrestling match between our hero, Orlando (an appealing Seth Dhonau), and evil Duke Frederick’s savage killer, Charles (Sean Michael Cummings). There’s also the exiled courtier—Cummings again, who later does a good turn as unhappily-in-love shepherd Silvius—teasing lingering music from a saw. John Hutton is terrific as both wicked Duke Frederick and his kindly counterpart, the exiled Duke Senior. And when he takes on a third role—which I’m not describing so as not to spoil the surprise—he lifts the entire event into a new comic universe. Faced with having to make do with a small cast, director Howarth has clearly made a virtue of necessity.
Though once in a while the double and triple casting doesn’t quite work. I was confused for a few seconds when Jihad Milhem—always an interesting, lively presence—having portrayed Orlando’s villainous brother Oliver, showed up again among the exiled lords. What was Oliver doing in the forest, I wondered. Having Josh Innerst play the aged, faithful retainer Adam, a figure who adds significant pathos, is a bit of a problem since Innerst is so clearly strong and energetic. But then, his Touchstone is purely wonderful. I also had mixed feelings about the multiple roles played by Leslie O’Carroll: man about the court, Le Beau; mean-girl shepherdess Phoebe; and the crucial part of Jaques—often seen as a ridiculous figure, but also the man who comes up with some of the most wonderful speeches in the text, including “All the world’s a stage.” I found the interpretation slightly unsettled. Since O’Carroll is one of our best comic actors, I’d love to have seen her pouring all her talent into Jaques.
None of this would matter without an exciting Rosalind, however, and Emily Van Fleet coruscates in the role. This is one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant creations: quick-witted, vulnerable with her beloved cousin Celia (a strong Sunté Lofton), fierce when she needs to be, and at all times utterly charming. Van Fleet makes the part entirely her own, and it would be worth seeing the production just for the pleasure of watching her do it. And yet, you also get so many other pleasures. I wouldn’t miss it if I were you.
As You Like It. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 10. University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-8008, cupresents.org.