By Manning Harris
The Shakespeare Tavern begins the summer for us with the Bard’s most lighthearted comedy, “As You Like It,” directed by Andrew Houchins, running through July 12. If there is one of Shakespeare’s plays that we’re safe in not taking too seriously, it’s this one; and that makes the inhabitants of the Forest of Arden very welcome companions, be they entertaining, foolish, wise, or all three at once.
The sons of the late Sir Rowland de Boys have a problem: Oliver, the oldest (Paul Hester) has always hated his youngest brother, Orlando (Jonathan Horne) and omits no opportunity to humiliate him. Oliver’s latest attempt is to match the usurping Duke Frederick’s powerful wrestler, Charles (Vinnie Mascola), who has an annoying habit of roaring at people, against Orlando. But Orlando is resourceful and scrappy and wins; the match is witnessed by Rosalind (Dani Herd) the banished Duke’s daughter. Rosalind immediately falls for the handsome Orlando, who is equally smitten. A match made in heaven? Perhaps, but you know what they say about the course of true love.
Frederick (Troy Willis), jealous of Rosalind’s popularity, beauty, wit, and wisdom does the only sensible thing: He banishes her. Is Rosalind upset? Not in the least. She decides it’s time to disguise herself as a boy (Ganymede) and takes her cousin and bestie Celia (Kristin Calvert) with her to the Forest of Arden.
If you searched all of dramatic literature for a perfectly selfless egotism, a person so ravished with self-confidence that she has the capacity to illuminate those around her, you would likely choose Rosalind. In her jaunty way she dominates her play as much as Hamlet dominates his; nobody’s going to rain on her parade. She has what is sometimes called a harmonious consciousness.
I understand the young Katharine Hepburn played this role gloriously on Broadway in 1950; but Ms. Herd has her own vibrancy and charm, and her spunky imperturbability grows on one.
Meanwhile, the Forest of Arden is the place to be, and Rosalind proceeds to educate Orlando in the best ways to woo and win a woman; such is her charm that even in disguise she’s irresistible to him. He seems to see through her cross-dressing and soon declares he will die without her. But Rosalind comforts him and all lovers with her sweet wisdom: “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them—but not for love.” Rosalind is too full of inner joy to perish pining from the “French slop,” as Mercutio would say.
The two are hardly alone in the forest. Old Adam (J. Tony Brown), Orlando’s faithful servant, devoted heart and soul to his young charge, has accompanied him. There’s a touching sweetness in their relationship; Orlando says the loyal Adam is “not for the fashion of these times”; i.e., you can’t get help like that anymore. Mr. Brown’s is a gentle, lovely performance.
In addition, Arden is populated by some of Shakespeare’s wackiest characters. It’s a safe haven for foolish clowns like Jeffrey Stephenson’s Touchstone, mismatched lovers like Silvius and Phebe (Nicholas Faircloth and Becky Cormier Finch); and Oliver (Adam King) and Celia; also Audrey (Kristin Storla), William (Adam King), and other lords, shepherds, and country wenches.
Then there is the melancholy satirist and poseur called Jaques (Chris Kayser). It’s been said that the plot of “As You Like It” wouldn’t be affected if Jaques disappeared; but what fun we would miss, not to mention two immortal speeches. “All the world’s a stage” for Jaques, and if I may be so bold, for Mr. Kayser, too; for he swings for the fences with assured panache, like the veteran pro he is. (At one point he appeared to fall from one level of the stage to another; but such was his poise that I am still not sure if it was a misstep or not.) I laughed out loud at his “A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’ the forest.”
Mr. Kayser’s Jaques automatically pulls the focus with any actor he’s with, except Jonathan Horne’s radiant, love-struck Orlando. This 31-year-old actor, fresh from a blazing performance as the Tavern’s “Coriolanus,” is on quite a roll, with show-stopping performances at Georgia Ensemble Theatre, Aris, and film work as well. He’s magnetic and attractive; he bears watching.
Rosalind may be the “teacher” in their nascent relationship, but as we’ve said, she’s anything but giddy or foolish. She knows exactly what she wants, and Orlando is number one on her bucket list. Fortunately, he feels the same about her.
In this play with assured happy endings all over the place, I think the pace could be picked up a bit; “As You Like It” doesn’t have much dramatic tension; so personal charm and fun must resonate from the actors—constantly.
And when it does, as is usually the case, the audience is assured of a good time in this summer-happy play.
For tickets and information, visit shakespearetavern.com.