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A CurtainUp Review
As You Like It

by Les Gutman
...the dulness of the fool is the whetstone of the wits.
---Celia, Act 1, scene 2

As You Like It has much in common with another staple of Shakespeare's comedic canon, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Both are "festive" romantic comedies, both play out in a sylvan setting, both deal with love and the pursuit of marriage and both employ "magic" in bringing about their conclusion. But it's in the latter that the two plays diverge: in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the preternatural influences remain mysterious whereas in As You Like It, we are privy to the putative magician's bag of tricks (or at least some of them, depending on your perspective). Still, when Rosalind's wit thrusts four couples to the altar in the play's final scene, we can't help but marvel at the achievement.

In Erica Schmidt's ingenious rethinking of the play's staging, our pleasures are redoubled. Reducing the cast to six, the Dramatis Personae to a lean fourteen and the running time to perhaps half of its usual length, she has made an endlessly entertaining game of the game. (Think The Mystery of Irma Vep as an Elizabethan comedy, and you're headed in the right direction.) It's a breathless romp for the actors; for the audience, half the fun is watching them morph their way through scenes in which they often appear opposite (or beside) themselves, giving new meaning to the term "flexible".

At the top of this list is Lorenzo Pisoni, who is assigned the roles of the dueling (and later reconciling) brothers Orlando and Oliver. Armed only with a bowler hat to distinguish Oliver, and particularly impressive skill as an acrobat, his execution is a tour-de-force. Almost as busy is Johnny Giacalone, who has numerous quick turns between Jaques, twice, and Touchstone, although what Jennifer Ikeda is called upon to do in the final scene -- she plays both Phebe, who marries Silvius (Drew Cortese, who is also LeBeau and both Dukes and Audrey, who weds Touchstone -- seems like even more of a predicament. Bryce Dallas Howard is the only cast member spared multiple roles; I suppose her double duty as Rosalind and Ganymede was judged enough to say grace over. Lethia Nall, who also must portray Celia as well as her alter ego, Aliena, nonetheless returns as William.

This production has a longish history, having paid a visit to the Fringe Festival in 2000 and The Public's New Work Now! program. Much of the current cast has been along for the whole ride. Performances are uniformly strong (Mr. Pisoni and Ms. Howard in particular), although the forward thrust of the direction frequently leaves casualties in its wake. Characters and interior scenes that can't benefit from the play's momentum become obscure, and the play's most famous speech (Jaques's "All the World's a Stage") disappointingly ends up at the margins. That said, overall, the story-telling is clear, and the entertainment is first-rate.

Wisely, sets and costumes remain faithful to the show's hardscrabble roots. Despite wire-gated footlights at the apron of the three-sided stage of the Martinson space that suggest what may well have been employed in earlier stagings, Shelly Sabel's overall lighting has likely been much enhanced, and to good yet unobtrusive effect.

This is a wisely crafted effort, well worthy of its new upscale environment.

At Williamstown Theatre Festival
At Stratford Festival
Editor's Note: Readers might also want to consider the opportunity to see another just opened Off-Broadway production, a new play that uses As You Like It to create a play-within a play: She Stoops To Comedy

As You Like It
by William Shakespeare
Directed and costume design by Erica Schmidt
with Drew Cortese, Bryce Dallas Howard, Johnny Giacalone, Jennifer Ikeda, Lethia Nall and Lorenzo Pisoni
Lighting Design: Shelly Sabel
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street (@Astor Place)
Telephone: (212) 239-6200
TUES - SAT @8, WED @12, SAT - SUN @2; $45 (discounted unsold tickets 30 minutes prior to each performance)
Opening April 14, 2003, closing April 27, 2003
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 4/11/03 performance

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