When As You Like It begins, intrigue swirls around the court of Duke Frederick, a usurper who has sent his brother, Duke Senior (the rightful duke) into exile. At court, young Orlando falls in love with the rightful duke’s daughter, Rosalind. Orlando gets exiled, and Rosalind decides to follow him secretly while disguised as the boy Ganymede. Rosalind’s cousin, Celia (Duke Frederick’s daughter), accompanies her to the Forest of Arden, where they find Orlando. While still disguised, Rosalind attempts to woo Orlando while the inhabitants of the forest pursue their own loves.
Director Jon Liddiard get so much right about this play. The stage business he adds to each scene enhances the meaning of the dialogue and creates genuine, unexaggerated comedy. Liddiard’s staging makes every scene memorable, from the boisterous opening in which Orlando fights with his brother Oliver, to the joyous final wedding scene — and everything in between. Liddiard elevates As You Like It and reinvigorates the 400-year-old play.
Liddiard is also one of the few directors I have seen who has solved the play’s most pressing problem: how to build up a relationship between Orlando and Rosalind when they have so little stage time together before Rosalind disguises herself as a man. Liddiard solved this problem by having Rosalind and Orlando slow down their early scenes, allowing the two characters to linger together as if each was trying to hold onto the moment. The two characters — especially the tongue-tied Orlando — showed signs of being clearly smitten, and it was fun to watch each become entranced by the other’s words and appearance. Could making As You Like It work be as simple as taking the time to show unambiguously that Orlando and Rosalind are twitterpated with each other? Yes.
Of course, it takes great actors to make great direction work. Thankfully, As You Like It had strong performers in its leading roles. As Orlando, Kristian Huff is a determined man of action. Huff conquers his most energetic scenes, such as the wrestling match, or the attempt to defend himself from the denizens of the forest. Additionally, Huff gave Orlando a tender side. One quiet moment I appreciated was when “Ganymede” offered his services to help Orlando be cured of his lovesickness. Before answering, Orlando took a breath, clutched the necklace that Rosalind had given him, closed his eyes, and reluctantly agreed. Not a word of the script was changed, but the emotional gravity of the moment and the deepness of Orlando’s feelings for Rosalind were palpable. Bravo.
Annika Mikkelson plays Rosalind extremely well. Her Ganymede had a confident strut and subtly masculine mannerisms that made the disguise quite convincing. Yet, Mikkelson could let Rosalind be feminine, such as when the character became giddy with anticipation at reading Orlando’s letters. Where Mikkelson excelled most was in giving Rosalind depth via relationships with other characters. Multiple scenes with Celia (played by Joleah Long) had the real feeling of a close female friendship, such as when Celia keeps the lovesick Rosalind grounded in reality as they wait for Orlando to show up to his first wooing lesson. Celia and Rosalind are more than friends; they are confidantes who care deeply for one another, and watching Long and Mikkelson interact is gratifying. Likewise, Mikkelson and Huff were successful in making Rosalind and Orlando a romantic couple. These actors are so committed to their roles that it does not matter whether the audience believes in love at first sight; the actors believe in it so much that the romance works.
Some of the supporting cast served these leading actors well. Zachary Hanks gives Oliver (Orlando’s oldest brother) some satisfying character growth that ends in forgiveness. Keith Allen is a successful Touchstone, executing the humor without ruining the mood of the play by being too ridiculous. Allyn Fry in the role of the wrestler Charles performed some of the most vigorous fight choreography I have seen in a long time.
Still, the casting pool in Utah County gets stretched thin in the summer, and it was apparent that some of the minor roles were filled by actors who were not as experienced in Shakespeare as the leads. Some actors stumbled over lines, and others gave vocal deliveries that made me wondered whether they fully understood what they were saying. I doubt, though, that this will detract from the experience of As You Like It for most audience members.
Costume designer Katrina DeKarver assembled a lovely array of outfits that creating the 1930s setting and differentiated characters from one another. I especially loved how, in his first scene, Oliver had perfectly coifed hair and wore a dapper vest, dress pants, white shirt, and tie, while his younger brother Orlando wore simple pants, a laborer’s white shirt, and suspenders. The contrast in appearance between the two showed how Oliver’s place as firstborn had made him inherit a title and fortune that Orlando could never aspire to. The most successful costume, though, was for “Ganymede.” The vest, men’s pants, and newsboy hat made Rosalind really look quite a bit like a young man, making it understandable why Orlando does not recognize Rosalind.
Brian Hadfield designed the nearly symmetrical set that followed the upstage contours of the cement playing area and added levels for the actors to perform on. There was also a small bridge at downstage center that crossed the artificial creek that separated the audience from the stage. This bridge allowed an extra entrance and some additional performing area that Liddiard used to great effect. But the best part of the “set” is the outdoor setting. The creek quietly babbles all evening, and the cool summer air and surrounding trees create the Forest of Arden better than any set designer could. No wonder Celia says, “I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.”
Celia is wrong in one respect, though: seeing As You Like It is a wonderful use of time. Creekside Theatre Festival’s As You Like It is a lovely evening of Shakespeare. The picturesque setting, the superb performances from the leads, and the excellent staging make As You Like It a delight for Shakespeare newcomers, casual fans of the Bard, and aficionados. Even a cynic like Jaques would be charmed by this production.