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STAGE REVIEW

Spirited company makes merry work of the Bard

Merritt Janson (Rosalind) and Tony Roach (Orlando) in Shakespeare & Company’s production of “As You Like It.’’ Merritt Janson (Rosalind) and Tony Roach (Orlando) in Shakespeare & Company’s production of “As You Like It.’’ (Kevin Sprague)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / July 6, 2011

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All the stage is awhirl in Shakespeare & Company’s exuberant and inventive production of “As You Like It,’’ a comedy with eternal lessons to teach about the folly and necessity of love.

Director Tony Simotes, taking full advantage of the play’s vaudeville possibilities, sends waves of physical comedy crashing through the intimate confines of Founders’ Theatre but ensures that the gleaming jewels of Shakespeare’s language are not submerged in the process.

Simotes has chosen to set “As You Like It’’ in the Paris of the 1920s. The period setting serves largely as a pretext for members of the splendid cast to swan about in Jazz Age outfits (rendered with eye-catching flair by costume designer Arthur Oliver), dance the Charleston, and even do a bit of scat singing.

Sight gags abound - at one point, several characters climb out of a hole in the stage - along with pratfalls, double-entendres, double-takes, and the occasional deliberate anachronism (there’s a reference to the Tea Party). But it’s not all slapstick: A somber, wordless scene in the Forest of Arden evokes the catastrophic war just past and perhaps adumbrates the one to come.

As Rosalind, one of Shakespeare’s most fully imagined heroines, Merritt Janson gives a performance charged with the intelligence, wit, and expressivity the role requires. She also does a nifty Groucho Marx-style-jig after her beloved bestows a kiss on her.

That would be Orlando, who is not just the object of Rosalind’s affections but also her partner in verbal fencing matches. Tony Roach brings a boyish charisma and a limber athleticism to the role - and Orlando needs the latter quality to survive the implacable hostility of his older brother, Oliver (Josh Aaron McCabe), who roots for his destruction in a match with a renowned wrestler.

This scene, where Orlando captures Rosalind’s heart, is staged by Simotes less in the spirit of Bardolatry than of a rowdy TV spectacle like “Raw’’ or “SmackDown!’’ complete with the clownishly strutting wrestler (Kevin O’Donnell) and a tide-turning kick by Orlando to his foe’s groin. (No referee intervenes. Vince McMahon would approve).

Later, it is Rosalind’s turn for a bit of derring-do: When the smitten Orlando affixes love poems to high branches in the Forest of Arden, she retrieves one of them by clambering up a scaffold, clasping the poem between her feet, and reading it while hanging upside down, Cirque du Soleil style.

What is Rosalind doing in the forest? Why, looking for her father, of course, in the company of her devoted cousin, Celia (played with robust personality by Kelley Curran) and Touchstone, one of Shakespeare’s truth-telling fools (Jonathan Epstein, nicely balancing bafflement and wisdom).

Rosalind’s father, Duke Senior (Johnny Lee Davenport), had repaired to the woods to live with several other lords “like the old Robin Hood of England,’’ as one character puts it, after he was usurped and sent into exile by his own brother, Duke Frederick, also played by the versatile Davenport. (It being Paris in the 1920s and all, Duke Senior could theoretically be spending his exile drinking with Hemingway, but Simotes apparently isn’t willing to go that far).

When Duke Frederick also banishes Rosalind in a fit of rage, his daughter, Celia, defies him and flees with her. Rosalind decides, for the sake of their safety, to disguise herself as a man (one of Shakespeare’s favorite devices) and call herself Ganymede.

Orlando bumps into Ganymede, unaware that beneath that cap is the lady he fell in love with back at the wrestling match, and the two bond. This lends an aura of same-sex attraction to the proceedings, further heightened when Orlando uses his new friend to practice pitching woo, so, you know, he’ll be ready when he eventually relocates Rosalind. He grandly informs Ganymede/Rosalind that “my Rosalind is virtuous.’’ She replies: “And I am your Rosalind.’’ But there’s a plot complication or two still to come before Orlando discovers that Ganymede is speaking the literal truth.

The supporting cast delivers standout performances across the board. As Phoebe, a pop-eyed shepherdess who becomes besotted with Ganymede (and who’s got stalker written all over her), Dana Harrison is simply hilarious. So is Jennie M. Jadow as Audrey, a cheerfully dim “country wench’’ who is wooed and won by Touchstone, not that it takes much wooing.

As Jaques, one of the lords attending Duke Senior, Tod Randolph nails the famous seven ages of man speech (“All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players’’). Randolph begins it with an angry sneer, then shifts to a tone of solidarity with wayward humanity, and then finally the character’s native melancholy reasserts itself as Jaques notes that the end to a human being’s “strange eventful history / Is second childishness and mere oblivion / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’’

Aw, cheer up, Jaques. You’re in a production of “As You Like It’’ that is already shaping up as a high point of the summer theater season, and that is, as near as I can tell, sans nothing.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

AS YOU LIKE IT Play by: William Shakespeare

Directed by Tony Simotes

Assistant director and choreographer, Rebecca Holderness. Sets, Sandra Goldmark. Lights, Les Dickert. Costumes, Arthur Oliver. Composer, sound designer, and music director, Alexander Sovronsky. Shakespeare & Company, Founders’ Theatre, Lenox. Through Sept. 4. Tickets $15-$65, 413-637-3353, www.shakespeare.org