- SHAKESPEARE FOR THE PEOPLE: Dan Matise as Jacques in the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival's "As You Like It."
'As You Like It'
Argenta Community Theater, July 1
Shakespeare, for being the untouchable granddaddy of English-speaking arts and culture, can be remarkably lowbrow. For some, his name makes them yawn and think of incomprehensible soliloquies to skulls and a confusing mess of "thees" and "thous," highfalutin drudge much like opera or Russian literature. Of course, back in his day, the bard wasn't thinking about academic immortality or what Harold Bloom would eventually say about him. He was a simple playwright with the rabble of Renaissance London to entertain — no doubt a tough crowd.
Therein lies the amusement of "As You Like It," which has remained a crowd-pleaser since 1600 or so. Much like traveling thespians of yore, the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival took its production of this comedy from Conway to the Argenta Community Theater in North Little Rock for its final weekend of shows.
It's a lively, fast-faced production, with a crew of bumbling, romantic characters who are all ironically fated to go head over heels for each other. Orlando (David Huynh), appropriately wide-eyed and optimistic, is a gentleman of the kingdom who is tormented by his older brother. After defeating the court wrestler in an uproarious and anachronistic showdown, Orlando is exiled by Duke Fredrick (Robert Dillon) and must flee his home into the Forest of Arden, but not before falling in love at first sight with Rosalind (Amy Fritsche), the daughter of a usurped duke. Conveniently, and without reason, Rosalind is likewise banished shortly after. She and her cousin, Celia (Christa Whitlow), along with a bouncy court fool, make haste as well to the Forest of Arden. For protection (but really to line up your typical gender-bending, mistaken-identity Shakespearian gags) Rosalind assumes a man's disguise, adopting the name Ganymede.
Superbly acted and directed, the rest of "As You Like It" is the typical lighthearted pastoral romance. "Ganymede" does "his" merry best to unite a pair of lovesick shepherds, one of whom falls in love with "him" instead. Ganymede also runs into Orlando, who unwittingly confesses his love for Rosalind. An assortment of other forest characters, blessed with their author's sharp-tongued wit, amorously pursue each other, while back in the kingdom Duke Fredrick calculates his revenge against all those characters in the play who are having more fun than him. Finally tiring of her charade, Rosalind drops her disguise and works on making sure that everyone ends up coupled and happy. Spoiler alert — everybody gets married in the final scene.
As enjoyable as he can be, Shakespeare is also dauntingly complex — one wrong move can make him boring and impenetrable. Although at times a bit lightning-quick, this is not a trap that the Shakespeare Festival falls into; it's a gracious romp on the playwright's more high-spirited side. Instead of pondering "To be, or not to be," they frolic in the good news that "All the world's a stage"— a monologue that in this production is both melancholy and humorous, not forgetting its comedy with the fame of its lines.
Unless you're an actor, you may hesitate to say that any work of Shakespeare's is fun; most of the time, that doesn't seem quite the word. But this production of "As You Like It" could be described as such. The actors seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves, delivering their speeches and asides as much for the audience as for themselves. Scattered with references to the modern day, as well as a live soundtrack of a few eighties pop classics, a purist might not have been amused; but what is Shakespeare if not eternally accessible? It is for the people, the hardscrabble crowds that thronged the Globe Theatre to stand in the mud and get drunk. If Harold Bloom doesn't like it, that's because he was never supposed to.