In Shakespeare’s "As You Like It," onstage at American Players Theatre through Oct. 7, a whole cast of unhappy city dwellers is forced to flee the royal court and seek refuge in the Forest of Arden.
Duke Senior (an affable David Daniel) has been overthrown by his brother, Duke Frederick (a stern Brian Mani), and so the former ruler is cast out into the woods, along with a group of his followers.
The deposed duke’s daughter Rosalind (a strong and determined Melisa Pereyra) is also sent packing after Frederick fears her beauty outshines that of his own daughter, Celia (a luminous Andrea San Miguel). But the cousins refuse to be separated so they head off to Arden arm in arm, with the clown Touchstone in tow for entertainment. (And as the fool, Marcus Truschinski is endlessly entertaining.)
Finally, the young, scrappy Orlando (a noble Chris Klopatek) must take refuge in the trees after being misused and threatened by his older brother Oliver (Nate Burger), who has inherited his father’s fortune and refuses to give his sibling a share.
And as if by magic, these characters’ troubles fade away in the forest and romance blooms.
The beautifully styled production is set in 1870, a time when, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the differences between city life and country life were stark. As cities grew larger, factory owners grew richer and the pace of the everyday accelerated. Meanwhile rural farming continued, much as it had for hundreds of years. And in the fresh air, in the company of shepherds under the leafy trees, all these exiles are all free to discover that, in the words of Lin Manuel Miranda, "Love is love is love is love."
The love story at the center of all these escapades is Orlando and Rosalind, who meet briefly at court when Orlando wins an important wrestling match. They stutter and fumble through some pleasantries, and both are immediately smitten.
But their conversations take a different turn when they meet again in the woods – unbeknownst to Orlando, Rosalind has disguised herself as a young man. Emboldened by her trousers and cap, she tests her beau’s affection and teaches him how to woo her through exhaustive and very amusing lessons. And as much as she protests that women are too fickle, too demanding, too emotional and too much trouble, Orlando’s love only grows. Sigh.
As Rosalind, Pereyra is giddy and charming. Frequently sharing a hidden giggle with her cousin, she delights in the ruse and cannot hide her goofy, schoolgirl crush. Instead of being calculating, this Rosalind is simply quick on her feet – and good at making things up as she goes along. With the success of her gamble in question, the couple’s happy ending is even more satisfying.
And as Orlando, Klopatek is the good guy’s good guy. Driven to writing terrible poetry in honor of Rosalind, he wanders through the forest in a daze, halting his odes only long enough to comfort an old servant, or save his brother from an attack by lions and snakes. (Like one does.) The power of the forest even mends the brothers’ relationship and makes sparks fly between Oliver and Celia. Aww.
But Rosalind makes such a convincing and handsome young squire that, while trying to settle a lovers’ quarrel between country folk – the sad-sack Silvius (the fabulously pathetic Eric Shabla) and his prickly milkmaid love Phoebe (Kelsey Brennan) – the maid falls for the squire. A strange and wonderful love triangle ensues. Brennan is particularly fun to watch, as she falls deeply in love with Rosalind’s alter ego, even after the "boy" berates her and urges her to look elsewhere for affection.
Only Madame Jacques, one of Duke Senior’s entourage, cannot be cheered in this rural setting, which makes her melancholy speeches even more interesting. Normally played as an unaccountably grumpy old man, the part is absolutely mastered by Tracy Michelle Arnold. Dressed in a subdued gray with long silver hair in a braid down her back, she sees lovers and their folly all around her, but refuses to join in their celebrations. Sadder and wiser perhaps, she slips away before the wedding feast commences.
"As You Like It" is APT’s token Shakespearean comedy this season, a fun and funny play that is a wonderful "gateway" show to other works of the Bard, or other productions at the theater in Spring Green. Roughly two and a half hours west of Milwaukee, I guarantee it’s worth the trip. As much fun as it to see the characters to run away to the woods, the experience is greatly enhanced by hearing a gentle summer breeze rustle through the leaves on the trees that surround the outdoor theater, and seeing the branches that frame the stage lit up in a magical glow.