By Philip Pearce
Shakespeare’s four light comedy masterpieces are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing. If I ask myself, “Which do I like best?” it’s almost always the one I’ve seen most recently. Well directed, acted and mounted, of course. So this week’s winner is the As You Like It which has launched the new life and fresh hopes of the newly formed Santa Cruz Shakespeare.
It’s fast and funny and lovely to look at in U.C.S.C.’s Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen. Set by director Mark Rucker and designers Michael Ganio and B. Modern in a kind of early California 19th century, it’s clean-cut and accessible without a note of gimmickry or cuteness.
Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, this is a story about upper-crust people escaping the dangers and pretensions of life in the fast lane by bolting, like Alice, into unfamiliar and risky territory. Wealthy, witty Rosalind escapes a lot of ruling class political feuding by entering a pretty forest full of birdsong, lions, eccentric country bumpkins and effete fellow exiles. Like Viola in Twelfth Night, she has decided to do all of this while dressed up as a man, which fools everyone on stage but nobody in the audience and once added to the charm and challenged the acting talents of some Elizabethan boy actors.
As a plot device it’s even more far-fetched than Twelfth Night’s cross-dressing. At least Viola’s Orsino had never seen this newcomer as anything but a pretty looking boy, whereas Rosalind’s Orlando has already fallen head over heels for her before Rosalind climbs into doublet and hose, or, in this case, denim, suspenders and straw hat. That he converses and argues with, pursues and even kisses this cheeky upstart without guessing why the lad reminds him so much of his aristocratic lost love defies logic, but that’s an item that needs to be left with the hat check attendant in the lobby before sitting down to any Shakespeare comedy.
Loveable as all the supporting dukes and yokels are, the play only works with a resourceful, funny and athletic Rosalind, and Julia Coffey is a delight to watch in the role, even when she’s overcoming the opening handicap of a costume so bleak and black that, when she then moves on to boy’s gear, we have trouble remembering till the final moments that under all that disguise there is a young and beautiful girl.
As the shepherd youth Ganymede, Coffey has an unerring way with comic line delivery, and, like Mark Ryan’s explosive Touchstone, races happily just short of gibberish through some of that obscure word-play and Elizabethan jokery that have made the text a headache for many a high school English teacher. Trust me, I used to be one. Celia, her loyal companion in exile, may lack Rosalind’s fiery finesse, but she’s nearly as funny when played as a lovable blonde debutant type by Greta Wohlrabe. And that “All the world’s a stage” set-piece that has survived the centuries is offered with quiet clarity and dark humor by the impressive Allen Gilmore as Jacques.
As the suitor who pins up love poems like yard sale signs all over Arden Forest, Dan Flapper reminded me that, unlike most comedy heroes, Orlando is, well almost, a worthy foil to his wonderful lady-love.
One innovation, not a part of the text but in harmony with it, is Rucker’s handling of the scene where Orlando bursts angrily into a woodland banquet hosted by the benevolent exiled Duke Senior, played by the skillful Richard Ziman in tandem with the contrasting role of the exiled duke’s usurping brother Frederick. The text ends with Orlando joining the up-beat barbecue after fetching his faithful old retainer Adam, the wistful and appealing Marcus Cato. After which Adam never again appears or gets mentioned. Rucker and the cast have elected to end part one with an explanation of the old man’s disappearance. In a beautifully choreographed silent sequence, Adam collapses into Orlando’s arms, is pronounced dead, and is reverently carried off by Orlando and the exiles. It’s an effective choice, moving and believable, that adds a sudden, bittersweet depth to the story.
It all happens in a perfect setting and features a wonderful cast. I think you’ll like it. It plays through August 10th in repertory with SCS’s forthcoming Merry Wives of Windsor and The Beard of Avon. For dates and times and prices go to www.santacruzshakespeare.org.