Theatre Reviews
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography courtesy of St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

Forget high school English class and “Macbeth.”

 “As you Like It” was the play that really opened up the genius of Shakespeare for me during my first college class on The Bard. And though it is considered by some scholars to be one of Shakespeare’s “lesser comedies,” the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s current production of “As You Like It” proves those scholars misguided, and delivers the play to its fullest, most glorious potential.

Under the intuitive direction of Nancy Bell, love’s labors are not lost. I suspect Shakespeare named “As You Like It” to indicate the way he stuffed it full of audience favorites – romance, comedy, adventure, playful irony and cross-dressing balance with a bit of philosophical reflection. Bell’s interpretation delivers the play’s rich layers beneath the charms of its pastoral setting. This well-deserved hyperbole is a shining example of the Festival’s mission to foster community and joy across the St. Louis region through the Shakespearean tradition of art for all. And even better, the excellent performances are free of charge.

One of the challenges of staging a play in the open air of the Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park is creating a visually engaging center that supports the comings and goings of the cast. Mission accomplished, thanks to Scott C. Neale’s scene design that features a gilded, late-1800s proscenium arch with a vibe that’s part vaudeville, part vintage puppet theater and part…well, HBO’s “Deadwood.” A monochromatic painted cloth, awash with the name of visage of Duke Frederick, is the backdrop for the play’s opening scenes, then dramatically drops to reveal a cleverly ramped stand of trees representing the Forest of Arden. That moment alone deserves a chef’s kiss.

Stage left are the musicians, consisting of music director, composer and violinist, Beth Bombara, and Sam Golden on viola and mandolin and Jeremy Reidy on percussion. Bombara created new music for “As You Like It” that is an evocative Americana blend of folk and rock. Her tunes, sometimes played amongst the actors, seamlessly complement the play’s pastoral setting and emotional undertones. Her compositions add a contemporary-yet-timeless quality to the Shakespearean dialogue, enhancing the connection with the characters and their journeys.

At the risk of diminishing the thoroughly enjoyable performances of the cast that delivers an impressive chemistry and fresh, easy-to-follow dialogue, in many ways, “As You Like It” is really the “Rosalind Show.” Caroline Amos captures Rosalind’s wit, intelligence and charm with seemingly effortless grace, while maintaining a palpable chemistry with other characters – making her relatable and compelling. She delivers a perky Rosalind that is part pixie, part Puck and all princess – displaying in full Rosalind’s emotional depth and vulnerability.

Dressing Rosalind as herself and her masculine Ganymede persona presents a certain challenge for costume designers. Dottie Marshall Englis clads Rosalind in elegant and traditional attire befitting her status as the daughter of a duke. She clothes Ganymede in breeches, vest and cap that are just masculine enough to fool Orlando into observing to Duke Senior, “…the first time that I ever saw him / Methought he was a brother to your daughter…”

The rest of the costumes in this production are equally well considered and well sewn.

Jasmine Cheri Rush plays Rosalind’s gal-pal, Celia, with humor that is delivered with impeccable. Rush’s timing and reveals emotional depth and vulnerability in moments of concern for Rosalind and in her own romantic subplot. Rosalind’s love interest is Orlando, played Christian Thompson, whose performance is overflowing with youthful passion, physical vigor and sincere vulnerability. Thompson brings a dynamic presence that captures his character’s blend of bravery, romantic idealism and earnestness.

On par with her standout performance as Dame Toby in last year’s “Twelfth Night, Ricki Franklin’s creates a foppish Touchstone that’s an unforgettable mash-up that’s part Lucille Ball and part Lizzo.

Amidst the flirty merriment of “As You Like It” is Jaques, a role by which I often judge the quality of a production of this play. The character requires a nuanced portrayal of  Jaques’ introspective nature and critical voice. He doesn’t receive much stage line, but it’s the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech by which I judge a Jaques – and the play. Wali Jamal delivers a superior Jaques and that speech with a rare philosophical depth, serving as a counterpoint to the play’s themes of love and pastoral idealism.

It’s not often that a Shakespearean playbill lists goat wranglers as part of the artistic team – but this “As You Like It” does – D Ba S Ranch. Thanks to them, during press night, the goat – yes, a real goat – threatened to steal the show by refusing to leave the stage – and received its own ovation.

To go or not to go is not the question about “As You Like It.” Rather, it is question of when.

“As You Like It” continues at Forest Park through June 23. For more information, visit the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival website.

Related Articles

Sign Up for KDHX Airwaves newsletter