As You Like It is one of William Shakespeare's most pastoral comedies, with most of the scenes played in the Forest of Arden and with not one, not two, but four intense courtships proceeding apace. While there is a struggle for political power, this is very minor indeed and is settled with an offstage solution shoehorned in at the end. This work is as close to pure entertainment as the bard gets.
The set of the Forest of Arden is simplicity itself: several sets of huge branches tossed together, like oversized pick-up sticks that landed in a tepee formation. Adequate indeed, for "the play's the thing!"
The plot is boy gets girl, after overcoming obstacles, but the master playwright injects so much wit in the obstacles, and so much variety in the characterizations, that none of the courtships are at all repetitive. The prime lovers are Rosalind (Shannon Hill) and Orlando (Martel Manning), and Manning is a find indeed, as he brings to the party masculine charm, a robust physique and the grace in movement of a dancer, creating a vibrant character and anchoring the comedy. Hill, who was emotionally powerful in The Crucible last year, contributes here a perky, cheerful persona, and carries the narrative with a sprightly mien, but the interpretation lacks depth and variety, and her delivery of the brief epilogue disappointed.
Tim Sailer as Touchstone is brilliant, enhancing the wit with a romantic spring in his walk. One of the most admirable directorial touches is the rich body language of Sailer and the other actors; director Sara Becker understands that what one sees is more important than what one hears, and it pays off beautifully. The object of Touchstone's intended lust is the rural Audrey, played with seductive restraint by the beautiful and voluptuous Suzelle Palacios.
Rosalind in the forest is disguised as a man, and the shepherdess Phebe (Kayla Brown) falls for "him," rejecting her pursuing swain Silvius (Colin David) until the masquerade is revealed. Both Brown and David are excellent, and capture the lighthearted passion of the comedy. David Huyhn plays Oliver, who enters as a villain but repents in time to wed Celia (Christine Arnold). Arnold has the grace of a duke's daughter, as intended, and an easy charm. I wondered if Oliver might be less menacing early on, less of a heavy and more nuanced, so that the repentance and instant wedding become easier to accept.
Joshua Kyle Hoppe is captivating as the melancholy Jaques, with quicksilver gestures and an interesting presence. Jaques's probing intellect and philosophical bent serve as contrast to the rambunctious cavorting of the hormonal youths. This is a large cast, and they work well together, creating a unified ensemble.
Shakespeare here "punks" his audience, turning convention on its head. Whereas courtiers usually speak verse and the rurals prose, it is reversed here, a clear sign that the goal is simply "Entertainment tonight!"
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Director Becker delivers on this. I would say Beckers delivers a "rollicking good time," but the pace would have to be picked up a bit to merit "rollicking." This is definitely a date play, especially if you are trying to persuade her of the rich rewards of love at first sight, which we have here in spades.
A fun-filled event, channeling love in a variety of forms, and embellished with richly comic body language that enhances the comedy enormously.
As You Like It continues through April 28, Jose Quintero Theatre, UH, 132 Wortham St. For information or ticketing, call 713-743-2929 or contact www.uh.edu/class/theatre-and-dance.