Ranging from a violent clash between brothers in a quiet orchard, to edgy life at court under the onus of a suspicious usurper, to philosophical exile in the Forest of Arden where the usurper’s own brother, the deposed duke, has fled with his retinue, CalShakes’ As You Like It, directed by artistic director Jonathan Moscone, spreads out from a series of situations and encounters into a big show (if not quite a spectacle), incorporating a gypsy band, vocal renditions of The Bard’s sublime songs, a rather modest drag act, a little Big Time Wrestling, a good deal of business and routines imported from cabaret, burlesque and sitcom ... in other words, something of an extravaganza, played out under an enormous moon waxing through the boughs of trees (all scenery) to the nighttime sound of crickets (very real), in the Bruns Amphitheatre, facing the hills over Siesta Valley near Orinda.
The central focus is the love between Rosalind (Susannah Schulman) and Orlando (Stephen Barker Turner)—she the daughter of an exiled duke, banished herself by her usurping uncle (both men played by Peter Callender); he the wrongly disinherited son of the old duke’s retainer, who also flees to the Forest of Arden to escape the wrath of his brother.
But as in many of Shakespeare’s comedies, each action, every predicament is mirrored or contradicted by another, the very words flying “like a white doe,” as Melville said of the Truth in Shakespeare, “from tree to tree in the woodlands,” striking strange chords from simple tunes, all resolved in the marriage of four unlikely couples.
“One of Shakespeare’s most eloquent Romantic comedies,” says Moscone, and this production’s a breezy one, with quick scene changes, some overlapping. Quickly working through the various encounters that establish all the various interweaving complications, the action passes to the exiled duke’s habitat, where he lives “with many merry men in the Forest of Arden, like the old Robin Hood of England.” The ebullient exile is contrasted with his terse, cruel brother through lightning-quick costume changes as much as by manner.
Here, in a sublunar Arcady, rustics pursue each other in love-play, and the love-lorn Orlando finds himself hanging leaves of verse on the bare branches, proclaiming his love for the briefly-glimpsed Rosalind (besides throwing them into the audience as reams of broadsides, as well as hoisting her name alphabetically on a display of banners, its cord finally cut by melancholic Jaques—a fine casting of Andy Murray—the humorist). Here, too, Orlando again meets his love, but unawares (“Does he know I am in this forest, and in man’s apparel?”)—and she slurs love itself to him, saying, “I would not be cured, youth! I would cure you if you come every day to my cot, and call me Rosalind and woo me.”
It’s in the Forest that the music strikes up, Gina Leishman’s hot gypsy strains, played behind and in front of the action with brio by “The Band from Amiens,” Dan Cantrell, Lila Sklar and Djordje Stijepovic, on accordion, skirling violin and bass fiddle plucked and bowed. The show truly comes into its own then, with rousing group dancing, and song in unison, as well as a particularly good solo, almost chanson, by Julie Eccles (finely playing Celia, Rosalind’s cousin, who follows her into the Forest as “Aliena”) of “Under The Greenwood Tree.” “I like this place, and willingly could waste my time in it.”
There are good, almost cracker barrel, burlesques in the comic routines that stand out: Dan Hiatt as a wonderful Touchstone, the Fool who follows the ladies from court into exile, lolling in a rocking chair he’s just rocked himself out of, exchanging drolleries with an astute shepherd (Rod Gnapp) and proposing to his match, rustic Audrey (“I do not know what poetical is!”). A drunken minister and an obtuse boyish bucolic cluelessly in love with Audrey are skillfully portrayed by James Carpenter, who also plays Adam, Orlando’s loyal retainer. Max Gordon Moore essays the parts of a foppish courtier frog who drops his accent for streetwise talk when he warns off Orlando from the usurper’s wiles and a gawking shepherd boy, whose cig-puffing intended Phoebe (Delia MacDougall) ends up pursuing cross-dressed Rosalind, even coming on with a torch song, in feather boa at a stand-up mic.
The wedding at the end is grand, with a bride in topper and suspenders over white veil and ruffles. The threat from the usurper is gone through a Deus ex machina: an unseen religious man has turned him into an anchorite, and Jaques, who once was “ambitious for a motley coat,” flees the general happiness to join the converted villain in the hermitage.
“And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, from hour to hour we rot and rot, and there hangs a tale ... and so I laughed.” Jaques the melancholy serves as counterpoint, and underlines the Bard’s sly logic—and strange dispassion—of love. When Andy Murray is reciting, or Julie Eccles is singing, they (and we) taste his words and the shadow of the world behind them. But sometimes the trimmings get too rich and run over, obscuring the geometry of the clear, clean lines moving in a coincidence of opposites. On Kris Stone’s marvelous set (well-lit by Alexander V. Nichols, with sound by James Ballen and wildly diverse costumery by Katherine Roth), the cast moves with alacrity (well-choreograhed and fight-directed by MaryBeth Cavanaugh and Dave Maier) and speaks well. “Say then good-bye, and you talk in blank verse!”
But the showmanship can stir up the dust in the missed silences that dog the glib speech (“Why, it is good to be sad and say nothing!” exclaims Jaques), and also pile gesture upon gesture unto gesticulation. There are moments—belied by Audrey’s noodling a line from My Fair Lady—where one asks, “Is this Brigadoon or what?”
But in any case, it really is, in Ed Sullivan’s words, a really big show.
AS YOU LIKE IT
7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday through Oct. 15 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd., Orinda. $15 and up. 548-9666. www.calshakes.org.