As You Like It Review-Shakespeare Comes Alive in this Upliftng Romantic Comedy

Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) on Navy Pier clearly put much effort and energy into making William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy As You Like It, directed by Gary Griffin, an encaptivating spectacle. The physically challenging stunt-work, enchanting music and song, and strong casting decisions (for the most part), made the overall experience for an audience member like myself very enjoyable. The larger themes of love, gender, family, exile, and nature were each fruitfully explored in this lively production.

Disguised as the young man Ganymede, Rosalind (Kate Fry, center) listens to Orlando (Matt Schwader) unwittingly proclaim his love for her as Celia (Chaon Cross) looks on in amusement, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s As You Like It, playing now through March 6, 2011. Photo by Liz Lauren.

While the language of William Shakespeare can often be a daunting task to listen to and understand for common laypeople like myself, I can satisfyingly say that the actors in this production conveyed the messages of the play well and made the language understandable. This was done through physical comedy, clear enunciation of the language, and the gathering together of the ensemble in moments of monumental conflict and joy.

Humor abounded in this production, staying true to the romantic comedic nature that Shakespeare intended for his play. Touchstone, a clown, played by Phillip James Brannon was especially playful and nimble, and was enjoyable to watch, especially in contrast to the more serious tones the play took on. His rapidly developed, overtly sexual relationship with young country girl, Audrey ( Hillary Clemens) led to many laughs. In a fashion somewhat similar to the relationship between Touchstone and Audrey is that of Phoebe and William. The way that eccentric and kooky Pheobe ( Elizabeth Ledo) vies to get away from the more socially inept, nerdy William ( Nathan Hosner) creates a relatable love relationship that audience members can identify with. The sensual desire by one lover combined with the sheer repulse by another is something we see often in life (though hopefully not too often!). This relationship further escalates throughout the play, leading to a circular and warped love chase of William desiring Pheobe, Pheobe desiring Rosalind (dressed as a man), and Rosalind desiring Orlando. This scene and general circumstance brought much laughter to the play, with each character haplessly chasing the other in a circular, seemingly unending trail.

The shepherdess Phoebe (Elizabeth Ledo) falls in love with Ganymede (Kate Fry), unaware “he” is actually Rosalind in disguise, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s As You Like It, playing now through March 6, 2011. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Ultimately, the play’s creative execution of scenarios like these helps bring the age-old and complicated language of Shakespeare’s work to life, allowing the audience both to relate and to have a hearty laugh.

The coincidental connections between and amongst characters in the play also adds good-natured humor to this comedy. The fact that Celia and Rosalind, two cousins (who really act like sisters), fall in love with Orlando and Oliver, two brothers is ironic, and farcical!

One moment I particularly savored was the wrestling match between Orlando  ( Matt Schwader) and Charles (Duke Frederick’s wrestler), played by Nathan Hosner. While itself a serious, darker fight scene, the added moments where Rosalind and Celia giddily cheered Orlando on on the sideline after only just meeting him minutes beforehand was fun and light-hearted. Their youthful behavior invoked modern teenage girls with raging hormones, and gave me a way to connect to the two women despite our very different circumstances and very different time periods. Another memorable scene was when Orlando boldly interrupted the picnic in the forest with knife in hand, foolishly ready to steal all the available food for himself. Upon realizing that these forest fellows were more than willing to share their lot with him, Orlando remarks “I thought that all things had been savage here.” The humor comes from the stark contrast between Orlando’s fervent boldness and uncharacteristically violent attitude with the mild, sunny disposition of the picnickers. The scene is nuanced and interesting because what the audience expects to happen, does not---a dark seemingly savage forest actually turns out to be a rather peaceful, welcoming place, for strangers and friends alike.

In terms of acting, I found Touchstone ( Phillip James Brannon) and Audrey ( Hillary Clemens)  strong, freely playing and experimenting with their more humorous characters and engaging in a quite a bit of physical comedy. Jacques, or shall I say, “Monsieur Melancholy” ( Ross Lehman) played his part with lucid passion. His sarcastic personality and calm, deep voice fit in well with his melancholy, philosophical persona. I also appreciated the bold, confident decisions Celia ( Chaon Cross), Pheobe ( Elizabeth Ledo), and William ( Nathan Hosner) each made with their quirky characters. Interestingly, I was a little disappointed with the two main characters, Orlando ( Matt Schwader) and Rosalind ( Kate Fry). I found Schwader played the ingénue Orlando in a very common, unnuanced way, playing his character, in actor’s terms, quite generally. His strength lay more in his stunts and acrobatics than in his acting. While Fry connected particularly well with her scene partners, at times I questioned her sincerity, particularly in her emotional love scenes. After discovering her love for Orlando and disguised as Ganymede in the forest, she seeks to know for certain whether Orlando’s love letters are indeed intended for her. Her consistently high, characteristically girly voice conveyed her desperation for her love Orlando, but did so in an overly simplified way, limiting the ways her character could naturally respond to the high stakes of the scene. In other words, her simplified reactions and unchanging voice gave her character fewer layers and dimensions, making her character more an idea than a living, breathing person.

Celia (Chaon Cross), Touchstone (Phillip James Brannon) and Rosalind (Kate Fry), disguised as the young man Ganymede, celebrate their arrival in the Forest of Arden, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s As You Like It, playing now through March 6, 2011. Photo by Liz Lauren.

While the sincere love between cousins Rosalind and Celia was not quite as evident at the beginning of the play, by the second act, one could really sense the deep love the two shared for each other. Their genuine emotional connection provided good reason for why each was willing to sacrifice being with their own fathers and in the comfort of their own homes for being with each other. Their physical proximity (they are practically joined at the hip!), the way they addressed each other, and their body language all conveyed this sense of unshakeable love and care for each other. Additionally, the bubbly and more playful Celia played an apt foil to the more serious, level-headed character of Rosalind.

The music and song that were incorporated into the production were also quite impressive, and all original (composed by Jenny Giering)! All of the music (whether just the acoustics or with the words incorporated) gave an aura of wonder and optimism that enhanced the overall message of the play. At one point in the latter part of the first act, however, when one of the pages sings in the forest to Jacques, Orlando, and the other foresters, I almost felt like I was suddenly transported to a Broadway musical, like “Rent”! The music elicited a modern Broadway feel and did not seem fitting for a Shakespearean genre, though I must say the music was beautiful and a surprising treat to the ears. Though I was a bit perturbed by the mismatch of the genres, at least the song’s content fit in well with the action and plot of the scene.

The set itself was beautiful and serene. The dark forest, seemingly made out of a paper mache-like-material, was particularly artistically designed, with the roots delicately draped like shades and the leaves lightly dangling from long strings. Suitably, the forest plays an important part in the play and is where most of the critical moments occur. Contrary to what might be expected, it is in the forest where love and reconnection with family members occurs, not in the duke’s palatial confines. The freedom to engage in thought and to be free both physically and mentally occurs in the wild forest, not in the bounded, man-created space of a kingdom.

Orlando (Matt Schwader) surprises Rosalind (Kate Fry) with a kiss after she and Celia (Chaon Cross) praise his wrestling victory at Court, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s As You Like It, playing now through March 6, 2011. Photo by Liz Lauren.

One aspect of Shakespeare’s play entrenched in the story line---that of love-at-first-sight--- was hard to fully comprehend in today’s terms. As You Like It abounds with cases of love-at-first-sight and is stated aptly by Pheobe when she asks “who ever loved that loved not at first sight?” The three main couples---Rosalind and Orlando, Celia and Oliver, Audrey and Touchstone, each create a bond of love with each other within minutes, seconds really, of meeting. The physical attraction and chemistry within one short conversation rapidly escalate and before you know it, all three couples are happily sharing their wedding vows. It was hard for me to comprehend how a couple could choose to marry after only speaking with each other briefly, and even harder for me to understand how one could fall in love with someone just by observing them and not even speaking to them! To illustrate, at the end of the play, Celia and Oliver set their eyes on each other, the two become instantaneous lovers, and in what seems like hours later, the two are married. While I found myself confounded by this quickly achieved “true love,” I also found it fascinating, and it allowed me the opportunity to analyze the way love has transformed itself over the years since Shakespeare wrote his plays.

The end of the play is incredibly optimistic and warm-hearted, an almost quintessential aspect of Shakespeare’s comedies, with four marriages all occurring at once. Fitting in with the rest of the production, this up beat scene occurs in the unsavage-like forest. As such, I walked out of the theater with hopeful feelings about love (both between lovers and between brethren), and with the feeling that in the end, with enough time, many of the knots we experience in life can be untangled. Family members reconnect, those destined to be with each other come together, and those once in exile are brought again to freedom. While life does not always attain such lofty ends, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production left me with the hope that good changes can occur with just a bit of fate and just a bit of freewill.  See it and be uplifted!

January 5 – March 6, 2011

800 East Grand Avenue • Chicago, IL • 60611 • Box Office 312.595.5600

Photos by Liz Lauren

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