Theater Review: Shakespeare as we like it at PSF
The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) has saved the best for last in its 2017 season (“Troilus and Cressida,” July 26-Aug. 6, notwithstanding) with a splendid production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” which bookends a season that opened with the spectacular “Evita” (June 14-July 2).
“As You Like It” is in repertory with “The Three Musketeers,” through Aug. 6, Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley. In other words, it’s the same cast in different roles. “As You Like It” was seen opening night, July 22, for this review.
Where to begin? Well, this is Shakespeare and this is PSF, which does Shakespeare as Shakespeare should be done: big, bold, and beautiful.
“As You Like It” Director Matt Pfeiffer keeps the pace brisk, the acting loose (delightful audience asides), with an adherence to the word, a respect for the text, and an innate understanding of the spirit of Shakespeare that makes this one of the best PSF Shakespeare productions ever.
“As You Like It” examines the human condition unconditionally. The play explores a full range of emotions, the divine human comedy that is life, the pitfalls and pratfalls, ups and downs, ins and outs, and, ultimately, the happy ending (or endings with the marriage of not one, but four couples) we each of us secretly or publicly desire.
In Shakespeare’s plays, the plot is the framework, the bones, if you will, on which hangs the tissue, the sinews, the body, of the work. If the play’s the thing, interpretation and performance is all.
Marnie Schulenburg, gracious as Rosalind in a gorgeous turquoise velvet gown with huge midnight-blue draped bow by Costume Designer Devon Painter, and then, disguised as Ganymede in young mans’s attire, creates a charming, cap-wearing Chaplinesque character, replete with mustache.
Totally besmirched by Rosalind is Orlando (Zack Robidas, as might, he would: he and Schulenburg are husband and wife). Robidas plays the role modestly, with the humility of a farm boy, who has a touch of the poetical, and is given to posting his tributes to fair Rosalind on the trees of Arden (an early version of a chap book, facebook and Snapchat). In the forest of love, you can’t tell the poems for the trees.
Even when he defeats Charles the wrestler (Mike Rossmy), Robidas downplays boasting. He also turns the other cheek to his older brother Oliver (John Keabler. who plays hapless to the hilt, successfully transforming the role into a sympathetic one). The wresting, as believable as a WWE match, is staged convincingly by Fight Choreographer Christian Kelley-Sordelet.
It’s Ian Merrill Peakes’ “As You Like It” to win or lose. As Jaques, Peakes commands the stage with sure-footed stance, eye-piercing gaze and theater-filling voice, especially in the “Seven Ages Of Man” (aka “All the world’s a stage”) speech. I don’t recall being so moved to tears when I encountered this famous scene in other productions. Peakes’ rendering is exquisite and sublime. Sheer brilliance.
There are many other noteworthy performances in the perfectly-cast “As You Like It”: Stella Baker as Rosaline’s confidante and cousin, the coquettish Celia; Esau Pritchett, as a fierce Duke Frederick of the court and kindly Duke Senior of The Forest of Arden; Paul Kiernan, who has some great put-upon moments, as Orlando’s servant Adam; Sean Patrick Higgins, who figuratively jumps out of his skin as Silvius the shepherd who woos Phebe (a terrific Kelsey Rainwater, who also modulates well the role’s transition), and Alexander Sovronsky, in good form, voice and instrument-playing, as Amiens, a wandering minstrel.
If Jaques is the pendulum swung glum in the world of “As You Like It,” then Touchstone (who has some of the best laugh lines) is the grand fool-bah. As personified in a hilarious turn by Dan Hodge, limbs akimbo, rubbery-face and fleet of foot as he pursues Audrey (dynamic Ilia Paulino), the role is the play’s, ahem, touchstone. Hodge’s argument of the quarrel, so deftly delivered, is one of the play’s tent-pole polemic moments.
There’s yet another character in “As You Like It”: the music by Composer, Music Director and Sound Designer Alex Bechtel, who put the words of Shakespeare (“Under The Greenwood Tree,” etc.) to wonderful music played by the ensemble, and wrote the words and music for the show’s concluding song, which deserves a life beyond the PSF show as a break-out YouTube hit.
The minimalist set by Scene Designer Brian Sidney Bembridge functions as a kind of London’s Globe Theatre stage, assisted by Lighting Designer Masha Tsimring.
You’ve got to hand it to the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production staff, and especially Director Matt Pfeiffer and the cast, for bringing this joyful, tuneful and glorious “As You Like It” production to life. This is Shakespeare as we like it.
Tickets: pashakespeare.org, 610-282-WILL (9455), ext. 1