This is a land of dreams, enchanted and enchanting. As You Like It is always fun, and this version by Austin’s Shrewd Productions is something special. Director Lily Wolff draws into this magic circle both familiar Austin devotees of Shakespeare performance and attractive newcomers. And the Shrewd company is just that: knowledgeable, confident, plausible and entirely winning.
Set initially in the court of an irascible and usurping duke, it’s a quick-moving tale of women friends’ escape to the forest of Arden where adventure and romance await. Young ducal heiress Celia wants nothing more to do with her glowering and potentially violent father, who has driven out his brother the former ruler and now is banishing Celia’s BFF Rosalind. Fleeing in the company of Touchstone the fool, they’ll settle in a rustic farmhouse in the forest, and their improbable disguises will fool Rosalind’s father Duke Sr. and the band of followers, as well as the handsome but penniless outcast Orlando. And yes, this is the one where love-struck Rosalind pretends to be a young page disguising himself as Rosalind to teach love-struck Orlando how to overcome his infatuation — with Rosalind.
Shakespeare sets us up with couples galore in the shadowy woods, nobles and rustics, bosom friends and yearning lovers. As You Like It is a happy primer on proper behavior, and there are comic lessons to be learned by many. We’re captivated by the characters, and the comic dénouement provides love matches, reconciliations and happily-ever-afters. There’s lots of hugging and kissing.
The publicity for this production has promised surprises of gender bending, perhaps leading folks to expect burlesque or vaudeville. Not a whit of it. True to the original and essentially verbatim in text, this As You Like It proves nimble, articulate and wonderfully funny, a comedy based in well intentioned guile and character. What director Wolff has done is simply to wave a wand and declare that the gender of the actor doesn’t necessarily have to be that of the character. That expands potential roles for actresses — Fritz Ketchum as the welcoming banished Duke Sr., for example, Andreá Smith as the haughty older brother Oliver who threatens Orlando, Molly Fonseca as the melancholy Jacques and Julie Moore as Touchstone the clown. But the transformation moves in the opposite direction as well, to fine comic effect, when David Boss doubles both as the wicked Duke Jr. and as simple Audrey, the shepherdess who falls madly in love with Touchstone.
The convention is easy to accept and forget. After all, Shakespeare’s women were originally played by teenage males. No quibbles are required, especially not in view of these casting choices.
The Shrewds secured the Trinity Street Players’ snug black box theatre on the fourth floor of First Baptist Church at 901 Trinity Street in downtown Austin, but they don’t start there. Heralds played by Taylor Flanagan and Taji Senior Gipson marshal spectators at the outdoor courtyard to hear young Orlando’s laments and his rebuke by firstborn brother Oliver. The company and audience move inside for scenes at the Duke’s court, played on the lower staircases and in the enormous central well of First Baptist, with the audience looking down from ground floor to basement level for the wrestling match. Young Orlando, caring nothing for his own life, takes on Charles the champion and his desperate valor makes Rosalind fall in love with him.
The audience moves upstairs to the forest of Arden in the theatre, lit with muted colors and hung with narrow thin purple gauze strips representing the trees of the dense wood.
This ingenious concept is sustained by Patrick Anthony’s lighting design. The company and scenic consultant B.P. Houle made the vexatious choice to populate the stage fully with those free-hanging representative trees rather than creating a central clearing. This gives the company plenty of opportunities for business with gauze fabric but regularly obscures the action. The artistic effect is to accentuate the mystery and obscurity of this magic locale, but the practical effect is consistent blocking of sightlines. Because it’s a small space and the players are constantly in movement, the design decision is annoying but not fatal.
Kriston Woodreaux is a tall beau hunk of a man. His Orlando the earnest lover is determined, muscularly gentle and perceptive, the archetype of the handsome young man ready to be taught to have bold heart to win fair maid. His Rosalind, Shannon Grounds, has been here before, for she was Celia in Beth Burns’ 2009 As You Like It at the Scottish Rite Theatre in Austin. Her portrayal of Rosalind is fresh and exuberant. Robin Grace Thompson as her buddy Celia is more grounded but consistently supportive.
A word for the clowns! Robert Deike as feeble old servant Adam and as confused clergyman Sir Oliver Martext uses his familiar broadly comic style to caricature those minor characters. Julie Moore as Touchstone is a coxcombed delight, strutting and bragging, and Moore’s wooing of the hairy-chested Boss as Audrey is right over the top and beyond. Molly Fonseca is a pensive Jacques but not in the least sour; in expression and movement she establishes a quiet ascetic distance from the antics of all these Signiors Love.
T. Lynn Mikeska’s settings of Shakespeare’s words are lyric and light hearted, whether for solos or for celebrating chorus.
Diction, delivery, movement and intent are crystal clear throughout, and there’s not a second of downtime. The Shrewds’ As You Like It does the piece proud, and it’s an enchantment to be cherished.