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THEATRE REVIEW: Shakespeare & Co.’s ‘As You Like It’ is lively, active and great fun

There is a nice sense of character development in every one of the players and their use of the language, sometimes difficult to grasp at a single hearing, never loses the audience but keeps attention.

As You Like It
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Allyn Burrows

“We shall shortly have discord in the spheres.”

Ella Loudon as LaBelle in the Shakespeare & Company production of ‘As You Like It.’ Photo: Nile Scott Studios

On the evening I went to see this play in the newly conformed Roman Garden Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, it rained torrentially. As a result, only the palace garden scenes were played in the new space while the remainder of the two-hour-and-15-minute play took place under a tent at the Rose Footprint location in the valley below. There was, still, enough time to see how director Allyn Burrows’ exquisite concept played out on Jim Youngerman’s beautiful set. Doing the play out-of-doors two and a half hours before sunset should have given a sunlit glow, but the weather worked against that and so the somber mood of the comedy’s opening was darkened further than it might have been, but that was a glory in and of itself, especially with Duke Frederick played by Nigel Gore. The Duke’s nastiness was increased by the growing gloom of the atmosphere and it sharpened his attacks on his niece Rosalind and Celia, his own daughter.

Making her Company debut in the role of Rosalind, Aimee Doherty, with a growing reputation in musical theater, made a delightful and strong heroine in this mid-career comedy by Shakespeare that has always featured strong women. Set in the 1920s this time around, Doherty’s physical image was literally silent-movie-star beautiful with bobbed pageboy hair and a stunning dress and hat designed by the talented Govane Lohbauer. Dressed as a boy for her own protection through most of the play, she successfully disguised her natural femininity without art or artifice. It is a lovely debut performance for this actress in a most sympathetic role.

Her cousin Celia was a lovely Zoë Laiz, whose sweet femininity enhanced the role beautifully. Never the brave equivalent of her cousin, this Celia was nevertheless mouthy and alert to her masculine side though her disguise kept her a girl. Laiz played the assertive aspects of Celia with a perfect middle-ground attitude, relying physically when she needed to on Rosalind but holding her own when she had to in charge of the moment. The softness she portrayed in this role was a lovely change from her roles in “Macbeth” and “4000 Miles.”

The courtier LeBeau was gender-shifted to LaBelle and played expertly by Ella Loudon as a Parisian in a suit and cloche hat, bearing a cigarette in a glamorously long holder. Loudon was silly and fun in this role and she helped make the first section of the play into the comic delight it needs to be.

Mark Zeisler as Charles in the Shakespeare & Company production of ‘As You Like It.’ Photo: Nile Scott Studios

The young hero of the play, Orlando, was played by Deaon Griffin-Pressley, who endowed the boy with manliness and a seriousness that made him both charming and alarming at the same time. Never a punctual character, his youthful assumption that whenever he comes is time enough to arrive sounded exactly right for the younger son of a deposed Duke, a man with no inheritance or rights of his own. Griffin-Pressley was never the wistful lad of Olivier’s interpretation, but was instead the single-minded youth bordering on a seriousness that would stand him in good stead in the future. This was just the right course for this production.

As his brother, Thomas Brazzle performed well, allowing the audience to hate his brazen rudeness to his brother and giving himself enough leeway to reform when it was wanted.

Charles, the wrestler employed by Duke Frederick, was well-played by Mark Zeisler, a slightly older-than-usual actor for the role. His wrestling match with Orlando was well-staged and its outcome definitively disturbing in Zeisler’s playing.

Zeisler also played Jacques, the brother to Orlando and Oliver, and, in this role, he truly shone aloft delivering the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech, the best-known piece from this play. Jacques has chosen to accompany and serve the deposed Duke father of Rosalind, also played by Nigel Gore. Gore switches gears completely in this role, emerging as a Mr. Nice Guy nonpareil. Sometimes perceived as a shepherd and sometimes as a man of power, Gore played every ounce of nuance in this man—a clearly opposite portrayal of Frederick—and won hearts easily with this role.

Gregory Boover as Silvius Amiens and Ella Loudon as Phoebe Dennis in the Shakespeare & Company production of ‘As You Like It.’ Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Loudon returned for the balance of the play in the role of Phoebe Dennis, a combination of Shakespeare’s Phoebe and Audrey who is pursued by young shepherd boy Silvius Amiens, a wonderful combination of the author’s Silvius, William and Hymen. They are the comic lovers whose lives are turned upside down by the appearance of Rosalind in her boyish aspect.

Gregory Boover is marvelous in his role and Loudon is hysterically funny in hers. In the forest of Arden where most of the play is set, it requires no fairy Puck to alter the affections of the maiden toward the maiden-in-disguise-as-a-boy. Doherty’s unflinching refusal to allow flattery to turn her head or shift her negative attitude is taken as mere flirtation by Loudon’s Phoebe, who finally takes action to turn on her love object. In one of the production’s funniest moments, Silvius tries the same tactic with Phoebe, only to be as easily rebuffed as Phoebe had succeeded.

Zoë Laiz as Celia and MaConnia Chesser as Touchstone in the Shakespeare & Company production of ‘As You Like It.’ Photo: Nile Scott Studios

The role of the clown, Touchstone, who also flees to the forest, is usually played by a man but, in this edition of the play, is undertaken by MaConnia Chesser in one of Lohbauer’s most interesting costumes. This Touchstone is deeply affected by the nature of the woodland setting and her pursuit of Aubrey, the former Audrey in this gender-reversal romance, is both lively and invigorating in the liberated aroma of the Roaring 20s. She is another version of Millie Dilmount of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” intent on getting her man at any cost, and Chesser is a lively, lovely hoot in the role. At the same time, she is easily a conciliatory friend to Celia and a supporter of the independence of Rosalind, yet remains cynically unromantic when confronted by the romance sought by erstwhile poet Orlando.

Allyn Burrows has kept this show lively and active and brought more modern humor into the play through his gender swaps in the roles. He keeps his pictures lively and varied and easy to watch, the story easy to follow. There is a nice sense of character development in every one of the players and their use of the language, sometimes difficult to grasp at a single hearing, never loses the audience but keeps attention. Seeing most of the show in the darkening tent without much sunlight brought some gravity to the play, but it was clear what Burrows’ intentions were throughout.

Susan Dibble’s final dance, in her grand manner but tempered by 1920s rhythms and movements, polished off the show with the usual flair and fun, helped, no doubt, by Karen Beaumont’s movement coaching, which shared the times of Shakespeare and Shaw very nicely.

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As You Like It plays at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, Massachusetts, through Sunday, Sept. 2. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go toshakespeare.org or call the box office at (413) 637-3353.

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