For the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production of As You Like It, director Matt Pfeiffer and the spirited, witty cast offer a fresh take on its classic themes of love, pastoral relaxation, and musical theater.
The production almost seems to delight in the ambiguity of the setting. The costumes by designer Devon Painter offer no hint to the time period – or rather, they offer multiple, conflicting hints. Duke Frederick wears a luxuriously spangled black velvet doublet and lace ruff, and courtiers like LeBeau and Oliver follow suit with similarly Renaissance-inspired outfits. Rosalind and Celia, meanwhile, first appear in Victorian ball gowns with bustles and black gloves. The Forest of Arden further complicates matters, as Phebe stomps around in ruffly dresses and cowboy boots, while Silvius matches brightly-colored vests to his Chuck Taylor All-Stars. This is not to say that the costumes are not effective: the only true misstep is Rosalind’s wedding dress, and that because neither her floral top nor sequined skirt fit properly. Overall the costumes exhibit a thematic unity, where the somber blacks of Duke Frederick’s court contrast with the bright colors, patterns, and floral motifs of the Forest of Arden, and everyone embraces pastoral style (as opposed to anything a practical shepherd would actually wear) with glee.
Scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set likewise conveys no definite setting. It offers a minimalist suggestion of nature, with wooden pillars bracketed by wrought iron frames standing in for trees and delicate glass lamps hanging from the ceiling substituting for stars. A highly polished wooden floor and looming decorative wooden screens in the wings complete the nature-inspired, but not actually naturalistic, ambiance. The closest anyone comes to the actual countryside is sitting on the prop bale of hay.
The cast is uniformly excellent. As Rosalind, Marnie Schulenburg gives a hilarious performance that is not afraid to be awkward and weird, clutching Orlando’s undershirt like a handkerchief or getting carried away in her disguise as Ganymede. Schulenburg has excellent chemistry with Stella Baker (Celia), who is equally funny; the two characters take turns being the sensible one, with Celia’s emotional levelness compensating for Rosalind’s lovesickness, and Rosalind’s practicality compensating for Celia’s lack of experience with the real world. Zack Robidas as Orlando proves himself Schulenburg’s equal in amusing and endearing awkwardness. He gives Orlando an aspirational charm that suggests that while Orlando instinctively senses the world ought to work a certain way, he has no idea how to accomplish it, and as a result wanders rather far afield. The traditional love poems nailed to trees are supplemented by events such as playing the bandit and taking one of Duke Senior’s men hostage – with a stick, while incorrectly wearing a handkerchief over the top of his face.
Alexander Sovronsky steals numerous scenes as Amiens, the musical leader of Duke Senior’s merry men; besides his admirable singing and playing, he also provides an excellent foil for Ian Merrill Peakes’ moody Jaques, rounding out their banter with gentle amusement. Ilia Paulino likewise lends her musical talents while playing a surprisingly canny Audrey, who doesn’t seem as much taken in by the manipulations of Touchstone (Dan Hodge) as a willing participant who finds them amusing. Hodge, meanwhile, successfully exploits a whole range of comic scenarios, from the traditional Shakespearean banter, to stoner humor, to some quick-witted improv (“Tequila shots taste best with lime / so raise a glass to Rosalind!”).
Director Matt Pfeiffer is known for his musical productions, and As You Like It – the most musical of Shakespeare’s plays – is no exception. Once again collaborating with composer/music director/sound designer Alex Bechtel, the first half of the production showcases delightful acoustic settings of the play’s music. (The second half features a few adaptations of more contemporary music, which, while normally a staple of Pfeiffer and Bechtel, seem to stick out more here.) Pfeiffer also combines the cast’s musical talents with their comedic ones, as when Jaques reprises Amiens’ song for his own cynical lyrics while insisting on squeaking out the high notes, or when Esau Pritchett’s stately yet groovy Duke Senior crashes the post-intermission overture with a glamorous saxophone solo.
Pfeiffer keeps the production moving at a steady pace, moving events along while leaving plenty of time for jokes; the comedy stays grounded in the characters’ charm. Pfeiffer also manages to gently poke fun at the pastoral lifestyle of the Arden Forest residents while showing why they would turn to it. The court of Duke Frederick (an appropriately unbalanced Esau Pritchett) is a place of dark colors, uncertainty, and anxiety; Pfeiffer’s decision to insert the intermission after Orlando completes the ranks of those who defect to Arden is unusual but effective, emphasizing the characters’ ability to relax and grow in their new environment.
The result is well-rounded, well-done, and eminently enjoyable. The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Theatre’s production of As You Like It is faithful to the play’s spirit and playful with its themes, providing audiences with their own small escape to Arden Forest.