A fanciful story deserves a fanciful setting. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has given us just that with this summer's production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It," which opened Sunday on the Elizabethan Stage. The sweet lovers and the oft-quoted speeches are all here, plus some of the most gorgeous set design and clever stagecraft that OSF can muster.
Director Jessica Thebus sees "As You Like It" as a charming fairy tale, complete with dastardly villains, damsels in distress and a wonderful clockwork prop, not to mention actors dressed convincingly as sheep and goats.
"As You Like It," of course, is about the many aspects of love and friendship. It is also about the contrast between the transformational "innocence" of the pastoral life and a particularly treacherous court. The dark scenes that set up the plot are quickly dispelled once the action moves to the idyllic Forest of Arden.
While Duke Frederick's court is mean-spirited, filled with cruelty, greed and envy, the unfairly banished Duke Senior's realm in the forest is a mirror image society of generosity, friendship and forgiveness "under the greenwood tree," where the only enemy "is winter and rough weather."
The charm of this production lies in the wonderful performances and the luminous chemistry of the cast.
We start out with a pantomime of the gruff, cruel Duke Frederick (Michael J. Hume) usurping the throne. Hume positively relishes the role of evil duke. If he had a mustache, no doubt he would twirl it.
Erica Sullivan's Rosalind is wonderfully giddy, spontaneous and terribly young. No feminist wisdom or philosophy here. Rosalind's impersonation of a boy, Ganymede, is purposely never quite successful. Wayne T. Carr is equally impetuous as the lovesick Orlando. In every look, every speech between them, we can see Orlando trying to figure out why this "boy" is so much a girl and so like his beloved Rosalind herself.
Christine Albright's reality-based and sensible Celia is a lovely contrast and is even more delicious when she and Orlando's redeemed brother Oliver first exchange smitten glances.
Thebus artfully uses hearing-impaired actor Howie Seago. His reliance on signing here becomes an alternate language — to go with the alternate universe — of the Forest of Arden. As each new visitor — Rosalind, Celia, Orlando — becomes accustomed to this new world, we can see their use of their new "language" become eloquent.
The dour and philosophical Jacques is portrayed by Kathryn Meisle. It's a nice touch: a man's part filled by a graceful, intelligent woman. It's a bit of subtle gender bending that is a reflection of what Rosalind tries to accomplish as Ganymede. Jacques' well-known and oft-quoted speeches — the "seven ages of man" and "all the world's a stage"— are exquisitely elegant when done by Meisle.
Alejandra Escalante's Phebe, the shepherdess who falls in love with Rosalind in her disguise as Ganymede, is a sneaky scene-stealer. She is well matched by Daisuke Tsuji as the hapless shepherd Silvius. Kjerstine Rose Anderson gives us a charmingly unpolished goatherd, Audrey, in love with Rosalind's fool Touchstone (Peter Frechette), here played more as a court philosopher then lecherous country suitor. Richard Elmore gives his usual excellent performance as the wise shepherd Corin.
Thebus says that the production's look was inspired by the artwork of Arthur Rackham, the turn-of-the-century British painter and illustrator known for his realistic portrayal of fairy tale images. Todd Rosenthal's scenic design is focused on the backdrop of a large clock with visible cogs and wheels as the hands move and a stylized sun and moon shift the scene from day to night. It is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese's equally fanciful film "Hugo." Thick beds of reeds across the stage create an impermeable forest. Linda Roethke's costumes give us stylized medieval fairy tale images, not to mention those sheep and goats.
As always, Shakespeare's "As You Like It" is about love, glorious love. And this newest charming and ethereal OSF production of the play is definitely a winner.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.