The usual connotations of spring include merriment, courtship and green growing things — and the Stanford Shakespeare Company’s spring show included generous helpings of all three. The troupe mounts an ambitious production of the Bard’s popular romantic comedy “As You Like It” in the wooded grove immediately west of the Oval. The usually nondescript clearing was transformed by a cascade of lights, a set of ornate trellises and a rope-and-plank swing attached to a convenient tree. It was an inspired choice of location; the set, coupled with the dramatic lighting design, rendered a convincing analogue of the Forest of Arden, adding a dimension of realism to the production that would have been difficult to achieve on a conventional stage.
The actors, of course, take full advantage of the given space. The realities of Rosalind’s (Ellie Oates ’14) flight, and Celia’s (Sunny Huang ’14) impulsive decision to join her, quickly become apparent as Celia vents her frustrations on the forest floor and kicks up clouds of dust in the process. The wrestler Charles (Philip Balliet ’12) and his young challenger Orlando de Bois (David Raymond ’13) pound each other into real dirt. Multiple actors step onto the swing when delivering especially impish lines, and Jaques’ (Alex Connolly ’11) famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue is particularly engaging, not to mention one of the more risqué renditions, as he demonstrates the seven stages of life upon his companions, going so far as to send one of them scrambling backwards across a log, to great amusement and even wolf-whistles from the audience.
One of the Company’s greatest strengths is the effortless chemistry between its actors, which has only improved since “Julius Caesar” last quarter. As director Mary Glen Fredrick ’12 noted after the show, it’s the sort of camaraderie that accrues over months of working with the same small community on and off the stage. Especially in such a bawdy and unabashedly physical production, intra-troupe dynamics can make or break the experience — and StanShakes did marvelously. Each romance in the play has a unique flavor, which is no mean feat, considering that “As You Like It” features not one, but four (and a half) courtships. The protagonists Orlando and Rosalind’s true love is convincing despite the inevitable difficulties of Shakespearian gender-bending; Oates’s spontaneity and deviousness are wonderfully counterbalanced by Raymond’s compelling earnestness. Oliver (Philip Bowen ’11) and Celia’s whirlwind love-at-first-sight hits the audience out of nowhere, which, though it seemed slightly deux ex machine, was actually the Bard’s intention — not to mention that the actors’ loud and emphatic styles of acting matched each other, and their roles, very well. Touchstone (Kevin Hurlbutt ’14) and Audrey’s (Camille Brown ’14) over-the-top sensuality is a constant source of comic relief, and the fact that Hurlbutt manages to pull off such a physically active role while on crutches is a feat unto itself. And the love triangle of Silvius (Joe Camp ’11), Phebe (Erika Harrell ’11) and Rosalind’s male persona, “Ganymede,” is equal parts pathetic, uncomfortable and hilarious, just as it should be.
In addition to talented acting, the play came alive through a number of campy-but-cute modernizations which Shakespeare himself might well have countenanced. The costumes, for example, involved the layering of doublets and bodices over what appear to be hand-dyed dresses and shirts. A particularly clever touch, subtle enough that it may take several scenes to catch on, was the color matching of each romantic pairing; Orlando and Rosalind both wore turquoise tie-dye, Oliver and Celia purple, and so forth. Equally innovative was the incorporation of music, in the form of faux-drunken carousing and guitar-accompanied verse.
Were it not for fire regulations, one could easily imagine a bonfire arising in this Forest of Arden, with the exiles holding sing-alongs, à la Robin Hood’s merry band. These contemporary details helped render the play readily accessible to a modern audience, although given the actors’ expressivity and enthusiasm, they were just icing on the cake.
The Stanford Shakespeare Company’s reputation for excellence is well-deserved, and “As You Like It” is no exception.
“As You Like It” runs through Sunday, May 15, at 8:15 p.m. each evening.