On April 23rd, a balmy evening and the 455th Birthday of William Shakespeare, audience members lounged on blankets and chairs, sipped cool drinks, and nibbled on snacks in the Garden at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival while being entertained by the ASF Fellows Touring Company's abridged version of As You Like It, one of the Bard's most popular plays.
Honed down to a mere 75-minutes, the 8-member acting ensemble gave an energetic and sometimes rambunctious entertainment that is geared to make Shakespeare accessible to young student audiences on their tour; make no mistake, this shortened version appeals to the adults and purists as well because Associate Artistic Director Greta Lambert's assured hand is fully in charge.
Ms. Lambert has been directing these shortened versions for several years, and her signature is all over this production: creative casting of eight actors to cover all the roles, adroit staging, inventive humor, the ability to connect a 400-year-old play to contemporary audiences, and most of all a respect for Shakespeare's words in her finely edited script..
After a brief purposefully written Prologue that introduces the company and the various roles they play, this As You Like It dives right in to a story about love, forgiveness, and justice. Central to the plot is Rosalind [Katrina Clark], who falls in love with Orlando [Tyshon Boone] after he defeats the wrestler Charles [Tony Pelligrino] in front of Duke Frederick [Chris Marth], and his daughter (who is also Rosalind's best friend) Celia [Sigrid Wise]. -- The Duke had usurped and banished his own brother; Orlando's brother Oliver [Eduardo Ruiz] tried to have him killed; the Duke banishes Rosalind, so she disguises herself as a man called Ganymede and together with Celia in the guise of a simple maid Aliena, and the fool Touchstone [Dane McMichael] decides to go to the Forest of Arden, where Orlando has also fled on the advice of LeBeau [Toreee Alexandre], and by coincidence the wronged Duke Senior [also Mr. Marth] also lives in pastoral comfort in company with the melancholy Jaques [Mr. Pellegrino again].
Pretty much everyone winds up in the forest, and when Orlando is caught pinning love poems to Rosalind on the trees for everyone to see, Ganymede offers to cure Orlando of his lovesickness by "impersonating" Rosalind and having him practice wooing her; and when local shepherd Silvius [Mr. Marth] is rejected by Phebe [Ms. Alexandre], and she falls desperately for Ganymede, and Touchstone falls for the lusty Audrey [Mr. Ruiz in outrageous drag], "Ganymede" tutors them all in the appropriate ways of love and courtship.
A lot to sort out in just 75 minutes, but this extraordinary ensemble of actors is up to the task, keeping plots and subplots clear, delineating each of their several roles so well that audiences could imagine a much larger cast than eight actors, maintaining Shakespeare's wit, while affording the more serious themes to come to the fore, especially Jaques' "Seven ages of man" speech. -- This talented company create a palpable chemistry on stage that infects the audience with a joyful spirit.
It is a comedy, so most everyone is happy at the end: brothers are reunited in harmony, forgiveness is given with dignity, all the couples are united in marriages, and the play ends with singing and dancing.