Shakespeare returns to the Festival Glen with ‘As You Like It’
When Mike Ryan stepped out onto the Festival Glen stage Saturday night to officially open the first Santa Cruz Shakespeare production, the packed audience cheered its approval. Players, spectators, everyone came ready to celebrate this long-awaited moment. And stocked with a smart cast of professionals, most of whom are familiar to audiences from past seasons in the glen, this first offering by the comeback company underscored the sentiment, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women … players.” Packed with memorable phrases and high comic wordplay, the SCS production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It spritzed through a tale of love gone wrong, fortunes gone awry, and fools showing that all’s well that ends well.
Designing for a downscaled set, B. Modern’s savvy eye found inspiration for the costumes in the pleasantly non-specific American West of the late 19th century. The spare set unveiled its secret weapon late in the first act, when the towering redwoods themselves—cunningly lit by Kent Dorsey—became the shimmering centerpiece. It was a disarming visual trick, and one that cast a true spell of enchantment over the rest of the evening, transforming the redwood Glen into Shakespeare’s romantically charged Forest of Arden.
The play is that rare Shakespearean showcase for a female lead, Rosalind (played with buoyant intelligence by Julia Coffey), who—after falling in love with Orlando (a believable and stalwart Dan Flapper)— leaves the treachery of her uncle the duke’s court (the vibrant Richard Ziman plays two dukes) to live the bohemian life in the company of her cousin Celia (a splendid Greta Wohlrabe). Rosalind famously disguises herself as a young shepherd boy, Ganymede, a bit of bardic tinkering that leads to hilarious moments of connubial wisdom. In the forest, the two cousins meet up with such denizens as the ultimate motley fool Touchstone (played with maddening perfection by Bay Area veteran Mike Ryan), and a wandering philosopher Jaques (Allen Gilmore), who explains the seven ages of man in terms that could do with a bit of enlivening. Another pair of juicily mismatched lovers also arrives on the scene: Silvius (William Elsman), who is in love with Phebe (Carly Cioffi), who falls in love with the cross-dressed Rosalind. And, of course, mayhem ensues.
Director Mark Rucker’s strategic use of actors’ strengths to match the rhythm of words and plot twists created unusually nimble and compact scenes. There was less of the rushing back and forth, up and down the side aisles than in seasons past, thus less of the need to yell and engage in vocal distortion to be understood. Ultimately, “the play’s the thing” that bewitches in this comedic festival opener.
As You Like It contains torrents of tongue-twisting puns, acres of unlikely verbal folly and cascades of rhymes, riddles, and naughty asides that are thrown—and deftly caught—by the entire company. For sheer verbal dazzle however, little can compete with Mike Ryan’s disarming delivery and matching body language—“can one desire too much of a good thing?” His every word is completely intelligible, yet delivered at almost digital velocity.
In the end the play is about—what else?—love, and hence it rests on the swift and coherent stagecraft of the remarkable Julia Coffey, who relishes yet never parodies the cleverness of her character. We believe her to be madly in love with Orlando—as he is with her—and all the more saucy and hilarious are their scenes together in which she, as a young man, teaches him how to properly woo a woman. Indeed, Rosalind’s entire existence in Shakespeare’s repertoire is as an interpreter of womanhood.
Great fun, a terrific play, and sprightly delivery—the fledgling festival is off to a great start. And there’s more fun ahead, as the same company of actors regale us with The Merry Wives of Windsor, opening July 17.
Santa Cruz Shakespeare’ ‘As You Like It’ runs through Aug. 10 at the Festival Glen at UCSC. Tickets at santacruztickets.com, or call 459-2159. PHOTO: RR JONES