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As You Like It (which is generally without rain)

June 13, 2010

American Players Theatre Artistic Director David Frank scanned the dusky sky prior to Saturday night’s opening of APT’s 31st season. “We have generally a full-house,” said Frank of the gathering audience for the opening night performance of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. “But we’ll have to see how many of the stalwart show up given the forecast.”

Frank knows whereof he speaks. With a 60% chance of showers predicted for Saturday evening, a date falling midway in a month that already had topped its entire rainfall predictions by more than an inch, APT may have been gambling with angry – or at least unnecessarily aqueous – god. Many remember several years ago when all three June opening nights were rained out, at least one by a downpour of Biblical proportions. APT, like other open- air theaters, sometimes find itself courting climatic disaster.

In response to Frank’s hoping (or perhaps prayer), the precipitation never materialized, allowing one of the best APT productions to come along in some time to unfold before an appreciative, but not nearly capacity crowd.

The Spring Green company’s past attempts to cash in on creative license haven’t always worked as planned, sometimes resulting in forced attempts at new window dressing in hopes of making William Shakespeare more relevant. However, if those artistic misfires were what it took for first-time APT director Tim Ocel to cast  As You Like It in the trappings of America’s Great Depression, then it was worth the years of foam and froth. The three-hour production has exceptional style and swagger, resulting in a comedic broth bubbling with both foolishness and wisdom.

The scenario seems unusually contrived, even for Shakespeare. Duke Senior is banished from court by conniving younger brother Frederick (both played by Brian Mani) and wanders homeless with a band of followers in the forests of Arden. Frederick also banishes his niece Rosalind (Chicago actress and APT newcomer Hillary Clemens) after she falls for Orlando (Matt Schwader), a son of Frederick’s mortal enemy. The pair play out their romance, with Rosalind disguised as a boy, amid a gaggle of philosophers, fools and farmers who populate the forest and its environs.

APT usually scores high marks on the technical side, and B. Modern’s period costumes and Andrew Boyce’s highly detailed, yet impressionistic set provide an excellent visual context for a cadre of generally outstanding performances. Silk-suited mobsters give way to overall-clad farmers flanked by enough hay bales to populate a larger-than-average barn dance, all of which offer a superb backdrop against which some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines are recited and comic performances are played.

The lengthy, complicated scenario breezes along as performers rise to the occasion, offering one highlight after another. Scene-stealers David Daniel and Colleen Madden do brilliant turns as the fool Touchstone and his lover Audrey amid music, dancing and even a wrestling match. Schwader is more than serviceable as the pining lover Orlando, and James Ridge shores up the philosophical side as tattered wanderer Jacques, who notes that “all the world is a stage and the men and women mere players.” (In case you wondered where that oft-quoted line originated.)

As Rosalind, a bright and lively Clemens steals the show, winning hearts among the characters as well as in the audience. The elderly gentlemen sitting in front of us turned to a friend at intermission and said, “I’m in love with Hillary Clemens.” We’re guessing he was not alone in that sentiment, either about the actress or the production.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2010 6:46 pm

    I always loved reading your theater reviews.
    This reminds me why.
    Thanks you.
    Jake

    • Mike and Jean permalink*
      June 17, 2010 12:52 am

      So, who do you think taught me how to review theater, Master Obi-wan?

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