To celebrate its 45th theatre season, Grand Canyon University continues to emphasize the works of Shakespeare with the pastoral comedy As You Like It. This whimsical tale of love is filled with all the unbelievable characters and situations we have now come to expect on TV sitcoms, but they are presented with the genius of Shakespeare's insight into the human condition and his original use of language.
Set in the delightful forest of Arden, this romp centers on Orlando, who is fleeing his murderous brother, and Rosalind, the daughter of the banished Duke Senior. Rosalind meets Orlando as he is getting ready to fight the court wrestler, Charles, and they are both smitten by love. Orlando is so taken that he turns to tacking verses to trees throughout the forest, all of them showing him to be ripe for love but not for rhyming.
To complicate matters, Rosalind, forced to flee her home with her cousin Celia, has disguised herself as a man named Ganymede, posing as Celia's brother. To test the depth of Orlando's love, Rosalind, as Ganymede, offers to give Orlando lessons in love. Orlando consents, and he arrives each day to woo Ganymede and to receive feedback on his technique. This provides Shakespeare with the platform from which to comment extensively on the folly of young love: Ganymede, when comparing kissing to talking, states, "For lovers lacking matter, the cleanliest shift is to kiss." When Orlando's education is complete, Orlando asks if Ganymede will have him. Ganymede declares, "Ay, and 20 such." At Orlando's confusion, Ganymede states, "Are you not good? Why, then, can one desire too much of a good thing?" These witty observations and turns of phrase are part of what make this quaint piece so enduringly delightful.
Interwoven into this plot line are two of Shakespeare's most entertaining characters: Touchstone, a fool who accompanies Rosalind and Celia in their exile, and the melancholy Jaques, one of the banished Duke Senior's loyal attendants. As with all of Shakespeare's fools, Touchstone is allowed to comment freely without fear of retribution from superiors. His comments on love and lies and living in the country all have a bite that only the Bard can produce. Jaques, on the other hand, is attacked for every observation he makes, but he is so downtrodden that these attacks leave him unaffected. His famous soliloquy, "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players," is one of the most recognizable speeches in English literature.
By the end of this interaction of lovebirds and philosophers, all is right, the bad guys have repented and love triumphs in a quartet of marriages. As You Like It is one of Shakespeare's most accessible scripts, containing the universality that has allowed Shakespeare to hold his place as the most often produced playwright in history.
The director's challenge remains how to keep a new production of As You Like It fresh and innovative. Unfortunately, director Claude N. Pensis goes over the top by presenting all the scenes that take place in the city abutting the Forest of Arden as a movie. Projected on a screen that covers the entire stage, this poorly produced B-movie is reminiscent of the grainy sci-fi serials of the '50s. The sound is so bad that some lines are completely lost. Each time the screen was lowered, the audience groaned audibly.
Slick live performances of the forest scenes (fortunately, the bulk of the play) contrast with the film portions. Pensis, who has carefully cut the show down to a manageable two hours, sets the play in a '60ish summer cottage complete with travel trailer, picnic table and an adjustable clothesline. As Pensis has demonstrated in past productions, he is a genius of stage business, and As You Like It becomes a wide-open vehicle for his stage foolery. Jaques turns into an avid photographer, Duke Senior is always painting restaged versions of American art classics, and Corin, a shepherd, is seen cutting bait while discussing the virtues of the shepherd's life. It's a shame that Pensis didn't choose to give his production equal treatment in the city sequences.
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Amid this creative staging there are some fine performances by these young actors. Christie Roam is a saucy Celia, a perfect balance to the Cupid-slain Rosalind, played with uncertainty by Christine J. Dunn. As Audrey, a peasant who falls impossibly in love with the disguised Rosalind, Maureen Domogala makes smooth transitions between affection and scorn, while Michael J. Kary's Orlando is appropriately love-struck.
In the coveted role of Jaques, Scott Campbell shows a maturity not often seen on the college stage. His natural delivery and blas attitude capture a Generation X approach to Jaques' disappointment in everything around him.
Though this portion of Grand Canyon's ambitious season may not be as this reviewer likes it, I look forward to its upcoming Tempest and the rest of its tribute to the greatest playwright the world has ever known.--Gerald Thomson
As You Like It continues through Saturday, October 28, at Grand Canyon University's Ethington Theatre, 3300 West Camelback. For more details, see Theatre listing in Thirlls.