August 1, 2008

THEATER REVIEW ; A Lot to Love in `As You Like It’



Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare on Boston Common, Tuesday night, through Sunday.

"All the world's a stage," indeed - especially when you're outdoors. And it was the sky's own dramatics that stole the show the first two times I saw "As You Like It" on the Common recently.

But when the rain and thunder finally let Commonwealth Shakespeare be, Steven Maler's production proved bright enough to give off its own light.

Shakespeare's middle-period comedy has been called by turns smart and silly, and both aspects are on display here.

Maler sets this tale in a 1930s milieu, where the usurping Duke Frederick and his men strut in Nazi-like uniforms. Forced into exile, the true duke's clever daughter, Rosalind, flees to the Forest of Arden disguised as a man, with her best bud Celia in tow.

Also taking to the trees is Orlando, a wronged, hunky nobleman who's incidentally head-over-heels for Rosalind. The banished Duke Senior and his men are there too, living in high Robin Hood style. Much mistaken identity, punnery and heartache trips up the lovers on the road to happy endings.

Maler keeps things light and bouncing with the aid of a five- piece Gypsy band that plays during the breaks. With Gypsy rock from groups like DeVotchKa and Beirut flooding the indie music scene, the aesthetic was a wise choice for this populist production.

A talented ensemble errs on the side of clarity and physicality, essential elements when most of your audience is halfway across the Common. Local character actor Larry Coen is ideally suited to this task as the jester Touchstone, one of Shakespeare's more urbane fools. When Fred Sullivan's melancholy Jacques delivers the emblematic speech of "As You Like It," he all but holds the sprawling audience between his fingers.

The one who really gives Maler's production its heart is Marin Ireland, whose bubbly take on Rosalind makes the character's preternatural wisdom go down easy. Her comedic timing is spot-on, particularly in scenes with Ali Marsh - her Celia the Ethel to Ireland's Lucy.

Alas, Frederick Weller (this production's token big name as Orlando) fails to keep up. He makes the Bard's words clunk and rattle. But Orlando was never the fastest car in the lot, so Weller's shortcomings as a Shakespearean kind of work in the grander scheme.

Maler's "As You Like It" plays like a bright, smart cartoon, complete with bouncing performances, bubble-shaped trees, and the dreamy rhythm of a wayward accordion.

Originally published by By JENNA SCHERER.

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