So I expected to enjoy the ARTS production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which wraps up this Friday and Saturday at the Renaissance Theatre in Huntington (at 900 8th Street).
But even going in with high expectations, I must admit - the show was amazing! It’s a classic story about love, impetuous youth, vindictive Dukes (and other, nicer Dukes) and a woman who disguises herself as a man, which leads to comic mischief when the man she loves asks him/her for romantic advice.
Whew! Sounds complicated, but it rolls along easily, thanks to the tremendously talented crew of actors who make up the ARTS resident company.
They work together seamlessly to bring the characters, story and era to life, all set on a clever stage “in the round” (meaning the audience is seated all around the edges of the stage, centered around an impressive tree at the center of the forest). The setting works well, and there's never a problem hearing an actor no matter where they're located.
Much of the show rests on the slender shoulders of Joanna Berner Murdock, who plays the beautiful Rosalind, the daughter of royalty who’s forced to flee from her home with the evil Duke (John Campbell), who threatens her with death if she stays. (Campbell also plays the evil Duke’s good-hearted brother, a much happier fellow, though the switch from one character to another can be confusing at times.)
When her upbeat cousin Celia (Kate Morris) offers to go along, Rosalind disguises herself as a man to protect them both from “predators” - and they take along the court Jester (don’t leave home without one), played with manic intensity and perfect comedic timing by Jonathan Maynard.
So Rosalind becomes the manly Ganymede - and her efforts at disguising (or failing to disguise) her true nature are hilarious.
Her lover, Orlando, is played by the amazing Mike Naglee, who is a wonder in this play, whether trading humorous quips, taking part in an amazingly physical (and convincing) wrestling match with the athletic Cameron Knight, or writing sickening love songs in the woods.
But the cast is loaded with such riches! Nora Ankrom absolutely kills as Phebe, a woman indifferent to the pleas of the (equally funny) shepherd Silvius, played by Dylan Clark. Phebe's interest is roused by an encounter with the “manly Ganymede,” and her transformation into a she-wolf is delightful.
The play’s most famous line is delivered by the melancholy traveler Jaques, who provides the “All the world’s a stage” speech - and Robert Hutchens does so masterfully.
There’s not a weak point in the show, which includes: the commanding Simon Woods as Orlando’s ever-angry brother; Rick Walker as Orlando’s comically hapless (but well-meaning) servant Adam; Tyler Bradley as the serious and stolid shepherd Corin; Todd Green as the funny would-be lover (but-alas-ill-fated) William; the luminous Cyndi Mac Fuller as Audrey, the innocent object of William’s interest; and the Lara Donahoe-led trio of musicians who provide sweet support to the proceedings.
Kudos to director Mike Murdock and the cast and crew of As You Like It - it’s a real treat, and yet another in the ever-growing line of top-notch Shakespeare productions from ARTS.