One of Shakespeare’s better known, and more frequently performed, plays, “As You Like It” mixes love and romance with banishment, gender-bending disguises, a touch of philosophical insight and even a wrestling match with a clear victory by the scrappy underdog. Sounds a bit like what you’d find during a night of surfing the cable channels, doesn’t it?
In St. Louis Shakespeare’s skillful and well-paced version, director Brian A. Peters places the leading women squarely in the spotlight. A credit to the direction and the actors, Betsy Bowman, as Rosalind, and Maggie Murphy, as Celia, command the stage with a natural ease and presence. They complement each other well, and each has genuine moments in which they shine.
Bowman’s Rosalind/Ganymede gives equal attention to savoring the small moments as she does in committing to the broad humor of the play’s storyline and suggestive dialogue. Through her interpretation and strong physical choices, Bowman does much to deliver the humor the language describes.
Her performance was filled with a stubborn spirit, befitting the witty dialogue that makes Rosalind such an enjoyable role. This approach worked well when coupled with the overall friendly, even beguiling, tone of her character choices.
Murphy’s Celia was delightfully transparent at times, expressing much with her reactions -- a glance of knowing towards Bowman, a sharp eye and willful spirit when threatened, an arched brow when skeptical.
She showed a deft touch with her character choices as well, successfully portraying Celia as naïve, but not stupid, a choice I applaud. In this production, Celia was an equal and true companion to Rosalind, and I enjoyed how these choices affected the nature of their companionship.
Murphy’s musical talents were also put to good use in this production and her violin accompaniment to a flirtatious scene between Bowman’s Ganymede and Orlando, a strong performance by Aaron Dodd, was a nice choice.
Several other actors sang or played instruments throughout the show, and the incorporation of live music added quite a bit to my overall enjoyment of the show. The fact that the instrument choices and quality of performance seemed to, in many ways, reflect the court versus country dynamic in the play was subtle, and effective.
In addition to Bowman, Murphy and Dodd, a number of performances stood out, including Robert Ashton, as both the vain, presumptive Duke and the wizened but exiled Duke; Christopher LaBanca as Jacques; Elizabeth Breed’s adorable Audrey; Tim Callahan as the much affected Touchstone; and the charming peasant lovers, Phoebe and Silvius, played both coy and eager by Tasha Zebrowski and Michael Pierce. Anthony Wininger, Carl Overly, Jr., Andrew J. Weber, Steve Wozniak, Chuck Brinkley, Maxwell Knocke and Joey Combs complete the solid ensemble.
This production doesn’t “talk down” or over-explain the story, but it also isn’t afraid of a little slapstick or a double take to help drive the point home. The themes are still interesting to an audience, and the actors and director, the crew, costumers and technicians, are all to be commended.
Overall, the diction and phrasing worked quite well, although there was a slight singsong quality to the dialogue early on. Occurring primarily in the opening exposition scenes, it quickly resolved itself. Additionally, some of the movement felt a little over staged, with a few too many clasped hand spins and unfocused, or unmotivated, strides across the stage.
For the most part, however, the staging worked well and the action was welcome. The sparse set was minimally and quickly changed, as a scene required, maintaining the pace and helping to keep the mood light. The occasional pantomime or visible crossing behind the main action by other characters ensured the audience had something to watch during scene crossovers and used the depth of the stage to the show’s advantage.
St. Louis Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” is a delightful production in the way I hope an accessible, 21st-century staging of Shakespeare will be. It’s fun; and it appeals to a broad audience because it’s also funny. It’s pretty to look at, down to details like the moonlight through the trees. The show is warm and friendly; it even has a Hollywood-ready happy ending. In fact, “As You Like It” is a great show for introducing a new theater fan to Shakespeare or for re-introducing yourself.
“As You Like It” runs through March 17th at the DeSmet High School Theater. For more information, call 314-361-5664.