David Daniel, HIllary Clemens and Tiffany Scott in American Players Theatre's <i>As You Like It</i>.
Completely outdoors and in a lush woods, American Players Theatre's "up the hill" stage is perfect for As You Like It. The short trek from the picnic tables takes you along a light-lined path into the forest -- the same forest where most of the play unfolds.
Set in France and in the Forest of Arden, As You Like It is a pastoral comedy that follows a group of characters who've been banished. In the shade of the forest, the characters begin to meet up, identities are hidden, new loves are found and all other sorts of antics ensue.
APT has transported As You Like It to 1930s America -- think William Shakespeare meets John Steinbeck. I can't deny the appeal of the tight jeans and cowboy boots Matt Schwader wears as ruggedly handsome Orlando, and I was especially smitten with costumes that look like leftovers from the shooting of Public Enemies. In dark pinstripe suits and black bowler hats, cigar-smoking Duke Frederick (Brian Mani) and his entourage appear menacing and shadowy as they chase after the Duke's daughter Celia (Tiffany Scott), who slipped away with her banished cousin Rosalind (Hillary Clemens).
Shakespeare's characters are elites who come across hard times, and in the framework of the Depression, the privileged even more clearly become humbled and freed by their journey into the woods. In his program notes, director Tim Ocel explains that setting As You Like It during the Great Depression was a careful choice. "The hardships that forced us onto the road and rails during that now mythic period find a solid kinship with travels and travails of As You Like It."
The production is professional and crisp. It has a fast pace, which people with short attention spans will appreciate -- though I did have a hard time at the very beginning. I hadn't yet gotten my Shakespeare ears on, and some of the speedy lines zoomed right past me.
It was good, too, to spot familiar faces. After seeing James Ridge as Scrooge in Children's Theater of Madison's A Christmas Carol this past winter, I had fun seeing him in a vastly different show. As Jaques, Ridge is believably depressed, but he is the character most likely to speak wisdom. He seems to appear anytime a dose of philosophy is needed -- he delivers the famed "All the world's a stage" soliloquy. His melancholia plays nicely against the silliness of other characters, most notably APT veteran David Daniel's Touchstone. The proclaimed fool of the play, Touchstone has an especially audience-pleasing outburst that surely must be inspired by the rapid-fire impressions and wildness of Robin Williams.
As You Like It has always had a special place in my heart for the way it takes us into the woods and lets us consider our own banishments, our own journeys. And at APT, we also go literally into the woods.