The set-up: As You Like It is one of William Shakespeare's pastoral comedies, an entertainment intended to delight, like lolling in a hammock on a summer day, while the movers and shakers of the world are left to grind their teeth elsewhere as they struggle in their machinations for power. The University of Houston presents it, along with Antony and Cleopatra, as part of its annual Shakespeare Festival at Miller Outdoor Theatre.
The play opens at the court of Duke Frederick, where we see young Orlando mistreated by his elder brother, see him win a wrestling match, and see him exiled. Rosalind has seen the athletic event, and falls for Orlando with a thud that could be heard in Corinth. They are well-met indeed, as Orlando is played by Benjamin Reed and Rosalind by Annie Rubino, and both seem born to their roles, capturing the enthusiasm of young lovers and the vibrant, buoyant spirit of this romp.
Reed showed his power in a dramatic role last year as John Proctor, the central character in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and here he demonstrates deft and full-blown romantic and comedic skills, an actor to be reckoned with. I would love someday to see him as the ambitious, amoral J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.
Rubino could not be better as Rosalind, fortunate indeed, as she has the leading role, the maypole around which events dance. The warmth of her smile, the intelligence of her gaze and the sparkle in her eyes spread across the large stage to fill it with a golden glow. My wish here would be that Shakespeare himself could see a performance that so brilliantly fulfilled his intentions. Both Reed and Rubino understand the rhythm of speech, and speak it "trippingly, on the tongue", capturing the lilt of the language, which includes here both poetry and prose.
The action swiftly moves to the Forest of Arden, where wanderers interact and savor the chance meetings (save the one offstage with a bear). Rutherford Cravens is authoritative, yet warm and human as the deposed Duke Senior, and Brandon Dirden is varied and vastly amusing as Corin, an elderly forester (he also plays, and well, the stern Duke Frederick in the opening scenes). Seth Gilliam plays the melancholy Jacques, captures appropriately his naysayer mien, and is effective in the wonderful Ages of Man passage beginning with "All the world's a stage."
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Chris Hutchison pays Touchstone, the fool, and provides an energetic performance, but it is a busy, fussy one. He does earn his laughs with comically vulgar gestures that illustrate the lust lurking within the candy box. Greg Cote is amusing as LeBeau in the opening scenes. Sometimes the minor roles, almost invisible, can enhance a tableau. Miguel Angel Garcia adds interest as a happy-traveling forester, and Dain Geist is hilarious in pantomiming a tipsy priest.
This is a wonderful production, largely without ornamentation, and leaving it to script and actors to carry the show, and they carry it on their shoulders, in triumph. As they might carry the director, Marc Masterson, who has done a superb job in grasping the spirit of the play and marshaling his troops into a jaunty, cohesive ensemble. As a minor note, he might suggest that Orlando hold the two-dimensional trees as he posts flyers on them, so they don't flutter with the impact. And I'm not sure we needed all the gingerbread special effects at the end, at variance with the general tone, where the bard marries them all off and wraps things up with shocking speed and cavalier dispatch. But, hey, it is the minor flaws that let one appreciate more fully the rest of the feast.
This comedy lauds romance and comedy, and breathes the heady air of wit and intelligence. It glows with talent, and envelops the audience with the generosity of its humor and the humanity of its characters. It has riveting, admirable performances in the principal roles by Annie Rubino as Rosalind and Benjamin Reed as Orlando. It is William Shakespeare's valentine to love, and it is not to be missed, a summer treat unparalleled. As You Like It continues through August 7, 9 and 11, with Antony and Cleopatra performing August 4, 8, 10 and 12, at 8:30 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. Admission and parking is free. For information on obtaining reserved seating, call 832-487-7102 or 281-373-3386 or contact www.houstonfestivalscompany.com