The Lantern Theater Company’s production of As You Like It seems presciently timed. Besides opening the famously pastoral play in the spring season, when the audience easily identifies with the characters shivering in the winter winds before rejoicing in the returning mild weather, director Charles McMahon uses lobby displays and program notes to highlight the context of the play’s original release. England in 1599, during the political instability of the latter years of Elizabeth I’s reign, has a certain resonance with the planned but still unsettling political turmoil of the American electoral cycle. These echoes add depth to the production, yet McMahon never allows them to drown out the comedy.
In this production, even relatively minor roles maximize their humorous potential, and the double-casting allows the company to stretch their talents: musical, dramatic, and comedic. Meghan Winch does a fine job of playing two uniquely odd and amorous shepherdesses in Phebe and Audrey. Chris Anthony shines as Charles the wrestler, with an over-the-top confidence, a penchant for gleefully pile-driving his opponents, and some intensely emotional acting — ranging from nonchalance to rage — conveyed only through eating an apple. The roles of Frank X, meanwhile, provide their own metatextual commentary. He adds a welcome pathos to the play as Adam, Orlando’s elderly servant, and this sensitive portrayal sharply contrasts with his entertaining turn as Jaques (melancholy by way of sarcasm and decadent ennui). The two are tied together by the “All the world’s a stage” speech, as the talented actor who played the elderly man now plays the wit acting out his musings on Man acting out his life roles — ending of course with an elderly man.
As for the main cast, J Hernandez makes Touchstone inscrutable but demonstrably off-kilter, and takes advantage of the fool’s creative grasp on reality to ad lib asides, accusing the audience of stealing his luggage and exclaiming his hatred for sheep. Orlando in this production does not exactly possess a mystic inherent gentility despite his rude upbringing: he is every inch a rube, albeit one who is aware he has been denied social education. But Jake Blouch imbues him with humor and charm because of his moments of awkwardness and cluelessness, not in spite of them, and lets Orlando evolve into an oddball who is comfortable in his own skin. Liz Filios’ Rosalind undergoes a similar evolution: the meet-cute with Orlando is a hysterical failure of social interaction on both sides, and her melancholic cello-playing and distinct guardedness around Duke Frederick show a difficulty in healthily expressing her emotions. But Filios portrays Rosalind’s schemes in Arden forest as a voyage of self-discovery, exploiting the freedom of her new identity to process her new feelings for Orlando and her old feelings for her father on her own terms: in the end, she is most comfortable as a synthesis of her two old identities, a princess in a fancy dress who spits on her hand to seal the bargain of her marriage to Orlando.
However, the comedic and emotional center of the production is ultimately the relationship between Rosalind and Celia (Ruby Wolf), a funny and endearing mix of mockery, physical altercations, and most of all affection. Wolf portrays Celia as the inverse of her father Duke Frederick, with all his emotional intensity but none of his vindictiveness: simultaneously high-strung and good-natured, deeply devoted to her cousin but more than willing to poke at Rosalind’s flaws. Filios, in turn, makes it clear that though Rosalind seems more even-tempered, she feels her feelings just as deeply, and in Frederick’s repressed court, Celia is almost her only outlet for expression. Wolf makes Celia’s protestations at Rosalind doubting her love or her exhortations for Rosalind to be happy not so much accusations as an instinctual frustration with the feelings Rosalind struggles with. While Filios and Wolf make the journey to the forest of Arden humorously fraught for the two out-of-place city-dwellers, they eventually reveal that their characters’ instincts to leave were correct. By adopting new identities together, Celia and Rosalind are counterintuitively able to be themselves and grow from a tight co-dependence to a more healthy dynamic of mutual support.
Janus Stefanowicz’s costume design offers a nicely restrained commentary on the themes of the play. The setting is deliberately vague but definitely in the past, with influences ranging from the antebellum to interbellum eras. The clothing of Duke Frederick’s court is somber and subdued, with formal suits and dresses, heavy outerwear, top hats, and military-style coats; the colors run the spectrum from light grey to dark grey, with some olive drab, navy blue, and black thrown in for visual flare. The inhabitants of the forest of Arden, meanwhile, focus more on the interplay between practicality and personality: besides multiple layers for warmth and heavy denim for sturdiness, exiled courtiers and shepherds alike have a fondness for a whole array of unique colors, textures, and cuts. Even Touchstone, whose striped trousers and brightly-colored patchwork jacket already stood out from the stuffy court, takes advantage of the freedom of the countryside by ditching his boots and unearthing a pair of extremely drop-crotched sirwal pants. The only obvious misstep is Rosalind’s wedding gown, of a beautiful coral color but an unfortunate modern-bridesmaid cut.
The set by scenic designer Meghan Jones is airy and open, with a series of round arches in white wood and a stepped gray stone dais upstage. The gray carpet, brick-red spandrels, and fluttering gold banners do an admirable job translating the grand, yet impersonal and empty, nature of Duke Frederick’s court. The blatant architectural features make it somewhat less successful as an approximation of Arden forest, even with the addition of some rustic stumps as the main set dressing; however, the green stone floor, open framework, and general pleasantness do at least nod to the freedom of nature.
McMahon’s lively direction strikes an excellent balance between the play’s central themes and the sheer fun of its comedy. Very little of the play is cut, aside from some parts trimmed for the small cast. (A few characters fail to make a reappearance — when their actors are otherwise occupied, or amusingly in the case of Rosalind, when McMahon seems to have taken her “a good play needs no epilogue” at her word.) McMahon allows the natural wit and humor of the characters to bubble out of the repressive nature of Duke Frederick’s court, and gently emphasizes the emotional stakes of the amorous shenanigans amidst the farcical developments in Arden forest. His treatment of the fight between Charles and Orlando is a joy to behold, mixing a more realistic take on how an amateur would fair against a professional fighter (despite winning: poorly), the emotional engagement of both Rosalind witnessing a brutal beatdown and the audience realizing that Oliver’s roundabout assassination could work all too well, and the inherent humor of the contrast between Charles’ exuberance and Orlando’s entirely justified yet hilarious shrieks of terror.
McMahon and composer/sound designer Michael Hahn also make music a key element of the production, with a similar evolution. The production opens with a wordless chorus accompanied by a mournful cello, an ominous avant-garde-style introduction to the atmosphere of court life, where Celia and Rosalind latter attempt and abandon a classical-inspired duet on violin and cello. In Arden forest, meanwhile, the minor key of the music is counteracted by its energetic folk style and unapologetic instrumentation (Touchstone inevitably acquires a tambourine while Celia trades her violin for a banjo). The production ends with a rousing reprise of the song from 5.3, which turns into a duet between Orlando and Rosalind on — as heartwarming and proudly hokey as the characters themselves — guitar and accordion.
Though McMahon does not shy away from the serious implications of either the play or contemporary society, the production’s message is ultimately one of hope: by being true to themselves, the characters heal their broken state. The Lantern’s As You Like It champions the worthiness of optimism and self-discovery, and reminds us that despite the darkest of circumstances, there is always time for humor.