One of Shakespeare's tastiest comedies -- set amid the tangles of disguised identities and loopy crushes -- is As You Like It, now being given a spirited but less than thoroughly inspired rendering by the Great Lakes Theater Festival. Under the direction of gifted Risa Brainin, this production generates merriment in myriad ways while following the convoluted love trail of Rosalind and Orlando. Even so, some of the characterizations don't exhibit the sharpness and snap that one would desire in this crowd-pleasing romantic comedy.
The action alternates between the court, represented in Chris Pickart's set by the forbidding solidity of sandblasted concrete walls, and the forest primeval. Unfortunately, an attempt to capture the woodland aura of a magical Maxfield Parrish painting on a single sponge-dappled flat falls well short of the dynamic use of color and glowing light that Parrish made famous. And since the court wall never disappears entirely, the purity of the natural world is never fully realized.
As for the core of the plot, suffice it to say that Orlando, brother of Oliver, has been aced out of his inheritance and has been banished to the Forest of Arden. But Rosalind has fallen hard for Orlando (and vice versa), so she hits the road with court jester Touchstone and her best friend Celia (a good-natured and game Kathryn Cherasaro) to see whether she can snare the fellow.
Tension between the life at court, where glowering soldiers strut, and the supposedly idyllic existence in the country is a key theme in the play, which Shakespeare intended as a gentle satire on the pastoral ideal. But since the Bard was always a soft touch for a cross-dressing gimmick, the larger satire is soft-pedaled when he has Rosalind disguise herself as a young man, Ganymede, who encounters Orlando. Ganymede offers to cure the exiled young man of his infatuation with Rosalind by pretending to be her and rejecting Orlando's amorous entreaties. Roz does this, of course, to test the young man's ardor and obtain an objective view of his true feelings.
Julie Evan Smith is a willowy Rosalind, with just enough fire, wit, and spine to make her drag-king masquerade borderline credible. And while Jeff Cribbs is entirely likable as Orlando and quite amusing when he does a double-take as he sweet-talks androgynous Ganymede, he doesn't quite ignite the spark necessary to light up Rosalind's life. As the comical Touchstone, Marc Moritz is dressed in a half-black, half-white suit and has the quick repartee (but also the distant manner) of a stand-up comedian. Moritz nails many of the laugh lines, but he could take a few more chances to connect with this mischievous character.
Never content to leave out an extra subplot, even in a jammed story such as this, Shakespeare also arranges for Phebe (Derdriu Ring), a shepherdess in Arden, to be smitten when she encounters Ganymede, much to the distress of Silvius (Nicholas Koesters), a shepherd who loves her. Thus we have Silvius who loves Phebe who loves the young man Ganymede who is really a girl who loves Orlando who loves Rosalind who is dressed as a boy: This is exactly the kind of amorous clusterfuck that has delighted Will's audiences for centuries. Of course, everything works out splendidly in the end, with a deus ex machina fillip that sends everyone back to court happy.
All are delighted, that is, except for one person: the profoundly depressed Jacques, who morosely notes, "I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs." As Jacques, Dougfred Miller channels the woebegone spirit of Oscar Levant and ironically lightens the mood whenever he goes off on a sour rant, including the famously cynical "All the world's a stage" speech. Also strong is Jerry Vogel as both Duke Frederick and his brother Duke Senior, although he does precious little to separate one from the other.
Director Brainin employs some original 1930s-style music by Brad Carroll, sung by suave Scott Plate with his backup crew, to help place the time. But that mood is broken when the singers launch into a contemporary hip-hop number. And Devon Painter's lyrical costumes, smoothly flowing attire ending in a wash of color at hem or pants cuff, do little to support the Depression Era theme. Given these small inconsistencies, perhaps someone should have remembered that the title of the play is As You Like It, not Hey, Whatever.