There’s something magical about being in an actual forest when “As You Like It” takes us to the Forest of Arden. Making excellent use of its rustic setting is something at which Santa Cruz Shakespeare (formerly Shakespeare Santa Cruz) excels: last year’s “Henry V” brought us to a highly realistic army camp when night had fallen in Santa Cruz, and the wilderness we found ourselves in perfectly mirrored that which our heroes were in.
Tall conifers surround the stage, and a few even sprout out from its middle, but get obscured by a black and white curtain when the action is at the court. This is outdoor theatre at its best.
Most good productions of “As You Like It” can boast a capable Rosalind – the play’s star who must disguise herself as a man to fend off dangers in the forest only to find herself face-to-face with her lover, Orlando – and a scene-stealing Jacques, the melancholy fool, or Touchstone, the Motley fool. In Mark Rucker’s production, not only is there a fantastic Rosalind (Julia Coffey, convincing as a woman not quite able to stay in character as a man) and a comic ace for Touchstone (Mike Ryan), but an Orlando (Dan Flapper) who actually deserves his Rosalind. There’s also a slew of strong supporting actors who make all the bit parts memorable.
The first act of the play takes place at court, where Rosalind has remained as a companion to her loving cousin, Celia (a sublimely energetic Greta Wohlrabe), even though Rosalind’s father, Duke Senior, has been banished by his usurper, Celia’s father, Duke Frederick (Richard Ziman doubles for both). It’s the slowest part of the action, where the otherwise very intelligent and vibrant Rosalind feels out of place: the confining women’s clothes of court cause her discomfit. The opening scenes – with rumours about the usurping, banishment, and upcoming wrestling match – unfold with such clarity that they build suspense as Shakespeare intended, rather than feel like scenes we must muddle through to get to the meat as is so often the case. The back-and-forth between Celia and Rosalind, teasing and loving, draws us in, and the awkward glances of admiration that Rosalind and Orlando exchange at the wrestling match are endearing and very funny.
The play really gets going, though, once the action moves to the Forest of Arden. By this point, Orlando, who is so often played as the handsome doof, in Flapper’s hands, becomes a complex man, an equal to Rosalind in verbal sparring as well as in compassion: he has a touching short-lived relationship with his elder servant, Adam (Marcus Cato), whose death stings. When he encounters Rosalind-as-Ganymede – that is, in men’s clothes – he takes pleasure in her humourous condemnation of his bad poetry, and he proves himself to be quite the wit, too. I’ve never seen Orlando get so many laughs for being clever.
Because she’s in men’s clothes and can’t openly court Orlando, Rosalind offers to cure him of his madness, love, by pretending to be his Rosalind and scorning him. Coffey shows us her delight at being courted under false pretenses, and she has Ganymede occasionally play the part of Rosalind too well, blushing and fluttering at the compliments Orlando pays her. This is not mere sport for her, but an opportunity to play lovers with the object of her affection in a safe way. She’s more herself, more open and clever, as Ganymede than she was as Rosalind at court.
In the woods, Rosalind and Celia, accompanied by their trusty fool Touchstone, meet a cast of country characters who are usually forgotten and confused, but in this rendition each excellent. They buy a country home from the local worker, Corin (William Elsman). Touchstone finds a pliable, sexually willing girl, Audrey (Neiry Rojo with her crook in tow) who’s silly and dumb enough to want to marry him and clueless enough to not notice he’s hoping their marriage won’t be real so he can get rid of her more easily later. And another silly girl, Phebe (Carly Cioffi) mistakenly falls for Ganymede while being chased by the ardent Silvius (the gigantic William Elsman, still stealing scenes in a part that’s usually thankless).
The only weak points in this very, very strong ensemble cast are Duke Senior/Frederick (Richard Ziman) and Jacques (Allen Gilmore). Ziman is a perfectly serviceable and good pair of Dukes, which is all we really need, but never shines brighter than is required. While Gilmore aces Jacques’s melancholy disposition, he’s managed to suck all the joy out of this character who can’t enjoy life: his Jacques is insufferable rather than wise and funny. Gilmore mopes around in his trench-coat, and like the rest of the cast, greatly elucidates the text for an audience who may be unfamiliar with it, but his Jacques lacks the scene-stealing verve that he should get.
As one of Shakespeare’s strongest comedies, “As You Like It” has a lot to offer. Rucker’s production does a commendable job of clarifying all the subplots, getting every laugh the script warrants, and gives lovely renditions of the songs. We even see Celia and Orlando’s now-reformed-but-formerly-evil brother, Oliver (Mark Anderson Phillips) falling in love, a rarity for a romance that so often plays like an afterthought to tie up loose ends. The stage is mostly bare, but Rucker does get good use out of a small set of stairs wedged between the on-stage trees. It serves as a spot for a picnic or a tune and to give the forest topography and depth. There are also many off-stage exits and entrances into the audience, with Orlando, especially, running down the aisles of the theatre as a stand-in for the long journey he undertakes with a man too old to manage the travels. This is a vibrant, funny, and thoughtful production of one of Shakespeare’s best. And I’ve never seen this play done quite so thoroughly well.
All tickets are just $16 (regular price is up to $45) for all students with ID. You can order tickets online here.