Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
As You Like It
As with many of Shakespeare's plays, a large cast is essential, so there are 15 performers in this production, to a person strong singers and actors. In fact, given the effective and quick-change doubling of roles, 20 characters step forward during the show's two acts, covering two-and-a-half hours with an intermission.
Shakespeare nerds need not fear that the silliness of As You Like It is diluted by this modernization, staged by Brant Russell, who chairs the acting department at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music. He keeps all the comic plates spinning and uses the musical numbers to underscore the characters' simple emotions. In fact, Shakespeare's twisty, frothy plot with no less than eight characters being mixed, matched, confused, and eventually paired off by the finale is helped along by a narrator (Hannah Gregory) who distills and advances the action with powerfully delivered songs.
But between the songs there are plenty of scenes that hew close to Shakespeare's shenanigans, especially several of the comic figures. Geoffrey Warren Barnes II is Touchstone, the double-talking fool who bewilders just about everyone he encounters. Billy Chace splits his time between oafish, macho Charles the Wrestler and the simple-minded shepherd Silvius. Candice Handy does a fine job as Phoebe, the domineering object of Silvius's affection. And antic Colleen Dougherty as enthusiastic but simple country wench Audrey manages to bewitch Touchstone. Jennifer Joplin takes on the sober, melancholic courtier Jaques, best known for the "seven ages of man" soliloquy that begins, "All the world's a stage... " After incidental false starts, Joplin finally gets to deliver it with her warm alto voice as a somber but lovely second-act opening number.
Courtney Lucien is both charming and animated as the central character, witty and smart Rosalind, who disguises herself as a smart-talking young man, Ganymede, to escape detection by a court faction that has banished her family. Her song, "I'm Gonna Be a Man," is great fun. She watches Orlando (K. P. Powell) out-wrestle the beastly Charles and instantly falls in love, only to learn that he's from the family at odds with her own. As they encounter one another in the Forest of Arden, Lucien quite wonderfully slips back and forth between girlish and macho when she intersects with Orlando, who's equally starstruck. He's been writing and hanging dreadful poetry throughout the forest. (Rosalind sings a song, "This Is Bad," as she encounters countless examples of his sappy rhymes–plucked from streaming tree banners dropped from overhead and festooned on greenery hanging from the balconies throughout the theater. (Samantha Reno designed the adaptable set that uses psychedelic projections by Robert Carlton Stimmel to represent various locales.)
Rosalind's cousin Celia (Angelique Archer, another fine voice) travels with her and tries to talk sense but is usually ignored. When she encounters another handsome dude, Oliver (Rupert Spraul), she's quick to abandon her cautious ways. Sara Mackie needs to make a lot of quick changes since she plays the heads of both warring factions, the nasty Duke Frederick and the warm, generous Duke Senior. (These are male roles in Shakespeare's play, but Mackie convincingly converts them into women with strong personalities. She adds another excellent singing voice to many of the show's numbers.)
Barry Mulholland initially plays Orlando's aged servant Adam. Then he steps into the role of Corin, a more worldly shepherd who befriends Touchstone. They spend some time around a campfire sharing a joint and delivering supposedly profound insights, including that "a great cause of the night is lack of the sun." That's a straight lift from the play's third act, made new and fresh by these very funny actors.
Translating Shakespeare's play into other times and settings is risky business, but this production of As You Like It, admittedly one of Shakespeare's most lightweight plays, makes a strong case for how the process can work. Davenport's lively score, brought to life by talented singing actors and a band that accompanies without overwhelming with its volume, makes for a delightful, joyous, and thoroughly entertaining evening, wrapped up by "Rosalind's Epilogue" with Lucien picking up a guitar, singing, and eventually joined by the entire cast sending the audience off with a "thank you for the good vibe in the venue."
As You Like It runs through April 29, 2023, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, 1195 Elm Street, Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit cincyshakes.com or call 513-381-2273.