In Shakespeare’s romantic – and philosophical – comedy As You Like It, the magic of disguise and the power of conversion allow the course of true love to run relatively smoothly, and heal even the bitterest of family feuds.
With deft contemporary touches, clever comic business, live music, and an elegant production design, director Matt Pfeiffer and the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival have fashioned a show that aims to please. But Pfeiffer’s nuanced staging also suffuses the play with strains of darkness, and seeing it is an unexpectedly moving experience.
The action begins with the world turned upside down: Duke Frederick (a snarling, sometimes incomprehensible Esau Pritchett) has usurped the kingdom of his brother, Duke Senior (also Pritchett, with flowing locks and a more genial manner). The dispossessed duke has retreated to the bountiful, timeless Forest of Arden, along with a merry band of courtiers.
Other characters improbably wander through — banished, fleeing, hungry, or in love’s thrall. Among them is the noble Orlando (Zack Robidas), escaping his own oppressive, dangerous older brother, Oliver (John Keabler). A handsome, charismatic presence, Robidas radiates natural, seemingly naïve charm.
While watching Orlando win a vigorously choreographed wrestling match, the good duke’s daughter, Rosalind (Marnie Schulenburg, Robidas’s real-life wife), falls hard for him. Their passion is mutual, over the top, and fanned by delayed consummation.
Banished from court like her father, Rosalind assumes the guise of a youth, Ganymede, for protection. She uses her new mustachioed persona to test the staying power of Orlando’s love, and flaunt her own increasing self-confidence.
Ganymede/Rosalind gets some of the play’s wittiest lines, developing into a Prospero-like figure who orchestrates the comedy’s various romantic pairings. But Schulenburg’s delivery could be slower and clearer, and the contrast between her male persona and female heart more dramatic (and therefore more comedic).
The rootless nobleman Jaques, portrayed with the requisite world weariness by Ian Merrill Peakes, embodies the play’s melancholy. His famous “Seven Ages of Man” monologue, like the skull in vanitas paintings, underlines life’s transience, and suggests that men and women, like actors, play a series of evanescent roles.
Jaques’ fellow philosopher is Touchstone (Dan Hodge, adept at both physical and verbal comedy), a brilliant wit whose role is court jester. Rosalind’s best friend and cousin, the urbane Celia (in a mellifluous portrayal by Stella Baker), is yet another character in disguise – as a shepherdess.
The show is framed and punctuated by music, both traditional and contemporary. (Alex Bechtel is the composer, music director, and sound designer, and Alexander Sovronsky’s Amiens ably leads the musicians.) Characters exchange high fives and snap their fingers approvingly, anachronistically reference Frankenstein, and burst into melodies such as John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
In keeping with the production concept, Devon Painter’s first-rate costumes mix pared-down vintage with modern-day rustic. Set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge’s Forest of Arden consists of metal trees, hanging lamps, and a projected geometric backdrop, and Masha Tsimring’s lighting underlines the show’s shifts between romantic enchantment and melancholy.
As You Like It
Presented by the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Company through Aug. 6 at the Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, PA.
Information: 610-282-9445, ext. 1 or www.pashakespeare.org