When Shakespeare snaps his fingers, the characters in As You Like It fall in love. The condition is so instantaneous that, in Lost Nation Theater's production, director Kim Bent signals it by having the characters freeze in eye contact as a gong rings and a spotlight blazes with flashbulb intensity. Two pairs of lovers are smitten in this manner, and two love triangles are launched. The play's scant bit of sorrow is resolved when two mean men see the error of their ways, and the only melancholy person you meet is the reflective fellow who explains how all the world's a stage.
Most of the action occurs in the idyllic but wild forest of Arden, a good place to go if you're usurped (Duke Senior, exiled by his younger brother Frederick), want to run away from your imperious older brother (courageous Orlando, escaping Oliver) or are banished from court (Rosalind, by the touchy Frederick). Rosalind convinces her dear cousin, Celia, Frederick's only child, to join her on the run, as well as Touchstone, the court clown. They'll need disguises in the forest, so Celia plans to smudge her face and become an easy-to-overlook peasant, while Rosalind dons men's clothes and calls her guy-self Ganymede.
Before she bolts for the forest, Rosalind sees Orlando score an unlikely rookie victory against the Duke's previously invincible wrestler, a match this production stages to great effect. And, of course, one look is all it takes for Rosalind and Orlando to spin head over heels. That look, however, isn't quite long enough for Orlando to figure out that the young man he later meets in the forest is, in fact, his beloved. The play's central gambit is a disguised Rosalind coaxing Orlando to proclaim his steadfast love for a woman he doesn't realize is the person in front of him.
An offstage peril replaces Oliver's hard heart with one that's swoon-ready, and one look at Celia sends him into orbit. The attraction is mutual. The rustics in the forest, however, struggle with love. Hapless shepherd Silvius is infatuated with Phebe, whose eyes have popped for Ganymede in another hit of Cupid's arrow. In a parody of romance, Touchstone falls in love with the dull-witted wench Audrey, who is also adored by peasant William. It's up to Rosalind to align all the couples in the end.
Bent's approach is tongue-in-cheek; the romances here are set off like so many fireworks to sparkle for a moment, in pleasing but not illuminating displays. The staging is elegant and most of the comedy is verbal, which allows the few physical outbursts to be vigorous blasts of fun. Kathleen Keenan wrote the music for Shakespeare's several songs in the play, sung by Taryn Noelle to evoke pastoral sweetness.
Ten actors play 21 roles. Much of the doubling is simply expedient, but the boldest move is the production's most memorable innovation. All three sides of the Touchstone-Audrey-William triangle are put in one actor's hands. That hint as to how it's accomplished is the only one you're getting, but actor Christopher Scheer conveys all the necessary nuances of a last set of lovers in a play already stuffed with them.
Ashley Nease and Gunnar Manchester bring good energy to Rosalind and Orlando, but emphasize wit and detachment more than urgent love. When Orlando proclaims to Ganymede that he'll die without Rosalind, he stands like a bright schoolboy making a sturdy pledge, not a true lover overwhelmed with passion. Nease's Rosalind has the cool confidence to dismiss his hyperbole but then indulges in comic giddiness when alone with Celia. Rolling on the floor and unable to contain herself, Nease shows what's funny about infatuation, but not quite what's glorious about love.
As Celia, Kate Kenney is a warm and witty sidekick, sweetly straining to bring Rosalind back from the brink of paralyzing passion. Her intent gaze on Rosalind, registering everything from shock to glee, helps focus the audience on the heroine, too. Leighton Samuels gives Oliver, the petulant brother who oppresses Orlando, a hint of jealousy; this Oliver stops himself to wonder why he despises his brother so. Once redeemed and in love, Oliver is joyously, physically released. When he falls flat on his back thinking of Celia, he's a picture of rapture.
The costumes by Shawn A. Sturdevant weaken the production with tone-deaf notions of the characters. The mighty wrestler looks ridiculous in S&M leather pants and a mesh top. Celia, who says she'll need to be cautious in the forest, is sent out in a spaghetti-strap crochet top and mule heels. If Rosalind is in disguise, it's as a stylish hottie going bar-hopping in Brooklyn, a choice that undermines her performance. A hodgepodge of retro garments for the highborn characters communicates only irony, while the forest natives idiotically have leaves sticking to their clothes.
Set designer Janine Woods Thoma crafted just enough rustic platform structures to focus movement and create a sense of place. The magical transition from court to forest earned applause in its own right on Friday night as trees grew and autumn leaves fell. Alex Zinovenko's lighting runs a little cool for idyllic woods but punctuates the moments well.
In a play about love at first sight, Lost Nation's production tries to earn the audience's affection by starting with intensity and emphasizing the wit and enthusiasm of endearing characters. The play is inherently cheerful, and, even if Bent and the cast are content to laugh at love without exploring it too deeply, As You Like It is still a true crowd pleaser.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Just One Look"