Free Love

A romantic As You Like It from the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival

If you're in the mood for a summer romance garnished with wit, satire, and a soupçon of cynicism, the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival has what you need. And to top it all, it's outdoors and it's free.

This production of As You Like It delightfully captures old Will's marvelous interweaving of passion and intellect, thanks to direction by Dana Hart that rarely misses a beat. And the talented CleveShakes cast, the strongest one in recent memory, almost always delivers the goods with precision.

Of course, they have some great material to work with. Shakespeare was hitting on all cylinders when he penned this light-hearted yet sneakily insightful comedy about love, manners, and some seriously horny (er, smitten) young folk. It's even studded throughout with music, thanks to troubadour Amiens (Bobby Williams)

At the center of this sprightly pursuit are Orlando and Rosalind, who fall in love instantly (as is often Shakespeare's wont). However, each of them is living in turmoil, since Orlando has been aced out of his inheritance by his brother Oliver (Steven Schuerger) — who also plots to have Orlando snuffed in a wrestling match.

For her part, Rosalind is separated from her father, Duke Senior (Allen Branstein), who had his throne usurped by his brother Duke Frederick (a nasty-pants Brian Pedaci). Thus, Orlando flees to the country while Rosalind is exiled to the exurbs by her uncle, accompanied by faithful friend Celia (Maddie Small), Frederick's daughter.

Fresh air certainly seems to trigger the hormones, as Orlando starts hanging love poems to Rosalind on every tree he can find. William Goff's Orlando is young and handsome, but his line delivery often butts heads with the music of the script and lands with a thud.

In the woods, Rosalind disguises herself as a dude named Ganymede. After finding Orlando's poems, she encounters the unsuspecting author and tries to "cure" him of his love jones for Rosalind by role-playing herself. As Rosalind/Ganymede, Valerie Kilmer switches voices and attitudes with lightning speed and tickles the humor out of each of her scenes.

But that relationship is just the beginning of the dating game. Touchstone, a court jester, has tagged along with Roz and Celia and falls for a randy wench named Audrey (a loose and lascivious Laura Rauh). Touchstone has some great lines and John Lynch chews on them with relish.

Then there's Silvius (Bryan Ritchey), a shepherd who is hot for shepherdess Phebe (Hannah Cooney). Trouble is, Phebe is gob-smacked by Ganymede, not knowing she's fallen for the cross-dressed Rosalind.

Confused yet? Sure you are, and we haven't even mentioned the last-minute crush between Oliver and Celia. But it's all executed with such crisp timing and vocal clarity that the tangles soon fall away and all that's left is Shakespearean gold.

Standing aloof from all the icky love stuff is Jacques, a melancholy lord in Duke Senior's band who absconds with the most famous speech of the play. It's the "All the world's a stage" riff, and it's handled with style by Hillary Wheelock in an inspired bit of transgender casting.

Wheelock has the guy gestures and postures down pat, with one exception. A man short in stature would never straddle a high bench and let his feet dangle like a child. Instead, he'd lean against the bench in some way to maintain his studly demeanor.

This remarkably satisfying As You Like It plays at different locations around the area through August 5, in rep with The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII. Just bring a blanket or a lawn chair (and maybe a donation), and feel the love.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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