Shakespearean Fields Forever

Give me a bard with hair, long beautiful hair
Michal Daniel

If the last two opening nights are any indication, the kickoff to a Guthrie run is a signal to the meteorological gods to dump a load of snow on the Twin Cities. Slip-sliding through slush seems counter to the vibe of this color-soaked, feel-good comedy-romance, but let's take the long view. Dramatic productions hardly come to life in a vacuum, after all, and this spirited, generous show will hopefully soon be playing on the springtime nights that lighten both Shakespeare's drama and our own winter-weighted lives.

As You Like It opens with brothers Orlando and Oliver. The latter is older, and has cheated his younger sibling out of his inheritance. A few minutes into this production, it is apparent that costume designer Helen Q. Huang is going to let it rip--Drew Cortese's Orlando is dressed in workman's plaid, but big bro Oliver (Michael Booth) comes forth in a mod, fur-lined suit and sunglasses, a '60s number that is both hilarious and comely enough to inspire an examination of one's own drab sartorial choices.

From here the central action revolves around cruelty and injustice, thoroughly spiced with humor. Orlando wins a wrestling match at court (staged in prime WWE style) and is subsequently run out of Dodge. Across town, Rosalind (Bianca Amato) is ordered to scram by Duke Frederick (Stephen Pelinski), who has usurped her father's estate and run him off to the woods. Rosalind heads for the same Arden Forest, with at least the consolation of beloved friend Celia (Ryan Michelle Bathé) and Jim Lichtscheidl's clownish Touchstone.

While the court setting in the early going has an austere elegance, it's when the action shifts to Arden Forest that James Noone's design really shines. The set change itself--a whisper-silent mountain-moving marvel that fairly well blows the mind--elicited applause on opening night. The action transpires amid steel curlicues representing wintertime trees, then wild colored flowers and paisley shapes for the springtime scenes.

The play itself is long and not without intermittent moments of tedium, but director Joe Dowling's cast almost unerringly homes in on the wit and vivacity of the text without imposing anachronistic meanings. As has been common at the Guthrie during the Dowling era, this Shakespeare play has had the 20th century thrust upon it. Here, the production utilizes the fashions and dropout mythology of the '60s without resorting to cliché or imposing meaning on a work possessing abundant wit that comes across in any era--in the right hands.

It doesn't hurt that Dowling has assembled some of the best comedic talent to work recently on Twin Cities stages. Amato impressed in last fall's Pygmalion at the Guthrie, and her performance bears some resemblance to that earlier effort but displays greater range. She plays to the audience without seeming to, and earns laughs with wise-ass pauses and bursts of manic energy. When her Rosalind, disguised as a man, starts busting the chops of her beloved Orlando under the guise of giving him wooing lessons, Amato's playful smarts and Cortese's game appeal blend perfectly.

Similarly well cast is Lichtscheidl, done up in astonishing hippie finery. He's the ultimate citified dandy making the most of his backwoods idyll, and when he tries to make time with hayseed Audrey (Sarah Agnew), some of the most comical scenes of the show result. Richard S. Iglewski's Jaques looks on, with a complicated blend of scorn and interest that typifies his performance.

Mel Marvin's musical score has elements of acoustic beauty, but the R&B finale, in which nearly everyone gets hitched, ends things with an unexpected rush of funky joy. While this show adopts the trappings of the '60s, it's of the tie-dye and flower-power variety rather than the Vietnam-bad-trip side of things. It fits the material, but the material also fits the moment. Dowling brings us a capable and able version of this Shakespeare comedy--a play that pleases while offering few challenges--and he wraps it up for us in a cloud of optimism and ample doses of knowing humor. Maybe he senses we could use a little relief right about now.

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