There is something powerful about Shakespeare in the summertime that draws theaters to As You Like It. It might be the music—it is among Will’s two or three most tuneful plays—or the romance—jam-packed as it is with four marriages—or the extra-windy road the play travels towards its comic resolution, but summer stages and audiences seem to simply love this play. Of course, befitting comedy, this is not a love without its challenges. As You Like It twists its plot in such a tight knot that the thread is easily lost, a danger not assuaged by its particularly lyrical and complex poetry. When done poorly As You Like It threatens to alienate its audience, or at least test spectators’ patience for dramatic irony.
The play’s saving grace seems to be its charm, and the Outdoor Stage team at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has found that charm, grasped it eagerly, and amplified it to its fullest. From the production’s whimsical set and soundscape to its briskly developing love affairs to its adorable flock of sheep (Amy Crossman, Tess Hernandez, Isabelle Russo, Kaitlyn Schirard, and Susie Wirthlin deserve special accommodation for yeoman’s work as the baaing chorus), The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey captures all that makes As You Like It a perennial choice for summer stages.
This is a play teeming with all of Shakespeare’s favorite romantic comedy tricks and tropes. We open by hearing of young Orlando’s (Matthew Simpson) growing urge to assert his manhood and independence. Fed up with his older brother Oliver’s (Jordan Laroya) oppressive rule in the house, he confronts Oliver angrily and then accepts the open challenge of the Duke Frederick’s (Bruce Cromer) champion wrestler to grapple with any opponent. When Orlando unexpectedly bests the wrestler (in an excellently choreographed fight scene), his reward is banishment at the whim of the Duke’s caprice.
Of course his feats of daring and strength have managed to enrapture the heart of Rosalind (Caralyn Kozlowski), daughter to the banished Duke Senior (Cromer, pulling double duty), brother to Fredrick, who usurped his throne and banished his brother to the Forrest of Arden. Young love between Orlando and Rosalind forms in an instant but remains unfulfilled both because Orlando must leave the court and because the enchanted lovers are overcome by befuddled awkwardness.
Yet Duke Frederick’s temper quickly leads to Rosalind’s banishment and it is not long before the two reunite in Arden—albeit with Rosalind dressed as a boy and Orlando unaware that his new acquaintance is the very object of his infatuation. In the throes of love, Orlando writes awful poetry to his absent lady and so Rosalind in her boyish disguise proposes to cure his lovesickness by posing as the woman he loves and allowing him to woo her. Rosalind becomes a girl dressed as a boy pretending to be a girl.
Got all that? Good, now for the subplots…
Oh never mind. Let it be enough to say that this is a play of romance, desire, music, misdirection, clowning and foolery, and just enough whimsy to unite all these elements.
Under the direction of artistic director Bonnie J. Monte, this production succeeds by embracing As You Like It’s flight of fancy. This is straightforward open-air Shakespeare that revels in the fun of playing it safe. Risks and explorations are great, and not alien to this theater, but Monte has decided to focus this As You Like It on the play’s delightful charm.
Of course whimsy does not come easy, but a great cast and production team achieve that whimsy stylishly. Highlights include Simpson as Orlando, who succeeds in showing a compelling transformation from the angsty and angry youth to the rapt lover wandering the forest with a bleeding and idealistic heart, and Greg Jackson who follows last season’s wonderful Lucio in Measure for Measure with an equally great melancholic Jacques.
But any As You Like It is only as strong as its Rosalind, and Kozlowski leads this production with vigor and grace. Rosalind is a delicate balance between strength and girlishness, as it is in large part her agency that both drives the comic plot and untangles the play’s complex web of twisted romance. We must therefore see her as able both to get herself into this mess as well as wise enough to set it all straight. Kozlowski’s Rosalind favors the adolescent lover dimensions of the character, but not at the expense of Rosalind’s power and intelligence. Rather, with her brisk speech and nimble movement around the stage, Kozlowski suggests that Rosalind and her plans are constantly teetering on the edge of collapse while she quickly improvises her way through the plot. This Rosalind is first a vexed lover—and she is miles over the moon for Orlando—but in her desperation she constantly finds the answers she needs. Few Shakespearean women dominate their plays quite to the extent of Rosalind, and Kozlowski meets that challenge by showing us a character growing into the role of strength only bit by bit.
As Rosalind teeters on the edge of collapse, so too does As You Like It on the summer stage teeter on the edge of tedium, but this production stays far from that danger by doubling down on the play’s charm and offering an evening fully in the spirit of Shakespeare’s comedy.