They had me with the Boucher before I even sat down for the Old Globe’s latest As You Like It at the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.
Scholars think Shakespeare was already at work on his next wave of plays, including Julius Caesar and perhaps Hamlet, when he took time to build just one more audience-pleasing comedy. His source was a popular novel, contrasting the stiff formality of court life with the Robin Hood romance of the forest, and he didn’t bother to bolster the lightweight plot but instead just spread generously the genius wit and lyricism that has made AYLI a world favorite for centuries. Just to be sure the contrasts between wretched court and glorious nature worked sharply, he invented a couple of inspired comic characters plus the very best of all his merry girls, the beloved Rosalind.
He’s the 18thCentury French painter who specialized in rococo canvases the size of garage doors picturing voluptuous youths enjoying an idealized outdoors setting with picnics, puppies and flirting. The kind of kids who would soon lose their heads on revolutionary guillotines. There’s a dandy Boucher right next door to the Globe in the Timken Museum – “Lovers in a Park” (1758) – which might well have inspired the whole look of this production. Certainly, it relates to the sumptuous act curtain centerstage.
So, before anybody steps on stage, I’m already off to an idealized forest, which is sort of what Balboa Park is every day. Good choice by the creative staff and lovingly executed by set designer Tobin Ost, brightened by the bright costumes of David Israel Reynoso, so suited each character, and the dappled lighting of Steven Strawbridge.
And Rosalind? She’s in the capable care of Meredith Garretson, who gradually turns the timid girl cruelly used by an avaricious tyrant into the bright, witty and loving paragon of natural, not stylized, romance. Even disguised as a bold boy, her femininity triumphantly dominates the show.
Director Jessica Stone carefully herds the supporting characters into the near background to make room for Garretson; for Jon Orsini as her particularly ardent and appealing lover, Orlando; for Vincent Randazzo, as an especially deft and polished Touchstone, the clown who thrives on rustics; and especially for Mark H. Dold, an outstanding melancholy Jaques.
In this Elizabethan frolic transferred to the Age of Enlightenment, Dold seems to have been imported backwards from a reading by Byron and Shelley (suggesting that period really isn’t very important in doing Shakespeare). The role lets him work outside the flimsy plot as an observant commentator who never will never find the contentment that everyone else has at the final curtain. Dold is the most admirable Jaques that I can remember.
Otherwise, Cornell Womack is a dominate presence as both the good and the bad duke, Niki Massoud as Rosalind’s pal Celia enriches many an exchange by rolling eloquently her large dark eyes and Summer Broyhill’s nimble, smoky singing does justice to the play’s lovely song lyrics.
Stone’s direction is most effective in the moments of intimate interaction, such as lovers’ banter, or formal presentation, as in the climatic wedding scene (an Elizabethan tradition was that all eligible females must be wed). Sometimes, she allows her supporting cast so much individuality that the focus goes flabby. Part of the modern director’s tool kit must be the art of making crowds look the right size and importance.
As You Like It is such a dear play that the Globe is doing it for the ninth time. It was the play chosen in 1982 to open the newly rebuilt Old Globe and the late Craig Noel considered it the company’s lucky play. This particular production stands proudly in that tradition.
(Continues in the Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre nightly at 8 except Mondays and July 4 through July 21.)