The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison is including two of The Bard’s plays in his current season, and both happen to be love stories. The tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” is next on the schedule, Oct. 16-Nov. 17. But being performed currently (through Sept. 29) is the comedy, “As You Like It.” Which, of course, couldn’t be more different.
In “As You Like It,” four couples find happiness together and get married, two monumentally bad guys suddenly change their ways and become good guys, and being forced to live in the forest is seen as not such a bad thing.
When Rosalind is banished from the court of Duck Frederick, Frederick’s daughter Celia (Rosalind’s cousin and best friend) quickly agrees to run off to the forest with her. They see it as an adventure, not a hardship. “Now go we in content,/To liberty, and not to banishment,” says Celia.
As directed by Paul Mullins, this is a good, straightforward presentation of “As You Like It.” The characters’ clothes (designed by Nikki Delhomme) struck me as typical of the late 19th century or early 20th century. The scenic design, by Brittany Vasta, is stylish but minimal; not much is done to create the illusion that many of the scenes are taking place in a forest.
Safiya Kaijya Harris is excellent as the play’s main character, Rosalind, who is smart and spunky and resourceful. Rosalind, along with Celia (Sarah Nicole Deaver), dress as young men as a protective measure while they are in the forest. This leads to all kinds of intrigue when Orlando, whom Rosalind has fallen in love with, shows up in the forest, too, and befriends the person whom Rosalind is impersonating.
Harris accentuates Rosalind’s playfulness and energy; she’s always got a glint in her eye like she’s thinking up a good scheme.
Also particularly good is Anthony Marble as Jacques. Marble recently played the title role in “The Rainmaker” at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ, and made a good impression then, too. I guess he’s got a knack for playing intriguing eccentrics, because that’s what Starbuck (i.e., The Rainmaker) was, and that’s what Jacques is.
Jacques is a melancholy ruminator and therefore, of course, unlike anyone else in this play. It’s also Jacques who has the most famous lines in it: The passage that begins “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players.”
This isn’t just a casual comment, though: It’s the intro to a long speech in which Jacques enumerates the “seven ages” of man: Infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon, and old man.
Or, as Jacques says of this final “age”:
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Towards the end of the play, the action gets dizzy and frantic, in a good way, with Shakespeare juggling the four romances: Rosalind and Orlando (Ben Jacoby), who’s as madly in love with her as she is with him; Celia and Orlando’s formerly evil but now reformed brother Oliver (Torsten Johnson); Touchstone (Nick Corley), the court jester who accompanies Rosalind and Celia to the forest and falls in love with a simple country girl, Audrey (Elizabeth Colwell); and Silvius (Ryan Woods), a shepherd who yearns for Phoebe (Devin Conway) even though Phoebe is in love with the young man Rosalind is impersonating.
It all works out, of course, in part because of Rosalind’s clever maneuvering, and everyone lives happily ever after. Except, of course, for Jacques.
As I said before, this is a good, solid production, not a revelatory one. Perhaps the most notable thing about it is that it features such an assured, impressive professional debut by Harris, a recent graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh who surely has bright things in her future.
“As You Like It” will be at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison through Sept. 29. Visit shakespearenj.org.
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