What more could one ask for in terms of a fine night’s entertainment?
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has done it again with its latest production this season at the F.M. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison. William Shakespeare’s As You Like It is considered one of his lightest comedies, with young lovers, assumed identities, and comedy in all its many guises. All this, plus the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech.
What more could one ask for in terms of a fine night’s entertainment? (If you can seriously answer that question, then you are a cad and a Philistine.) As You Like It, written between Julius Caesar and Hamlet, shows Shakespeare at his most playful and gives proof that he was indeed a master of comedy as well as tragedy. This production is light-hearted, romantic when required, and laugh-out-loud funny—a perfect combination.
Shakespeare’s plot is familiar to many. Rosalind (Safiya Kaijya Harris) and Orlando (Ben Jacoby) fall in love at first sight. Both are banished by Frederick (Earl Baker, Jr.), the usurping brother of Rosalind’s father. Frederick’s daughter Celia (Sarah Nicole Deaver) goes off with her, getting the court jester Touchstone (Nick Corley) to come along. They find themselves in the Forest of Arden, Rosalind disguised as the young man Ganymede, Celia as his sister Aliena. They purchase a ramshackle farm and become shepherds. Orlando finds the banished duke (Earl Baker, Jr., in a dual role) and his entourage, including the melancholy pessimist Jacques (Anthony Marble). When Orlando meets Ganymede, the young “man” teaches Orlando the true meaning of love by “pretending” to be Rosalind. Touchstone woos a country maid, Audrey (Elizabeth Colwell). Orlando saves his wicked brother Oliver (Thorsten Johnson) from a lion, reconciling the two, and when Oliver meets Celia the two of them fall headlong in love.
This being a Shakespearean romance, all the characters end up with the right partners and are married by the exiled Duke, restored to his realm by his repentant brother. Jacques, ever melancholy, refuses to join in the merriment and swears to become a religious hermit.
The cast is sublime. Safiya Kaijya Harris is a lovely, determined Rosalind. Although she falls in love with Ben Jacoby’s tongue-tied Orlando immediately, once in the forest she patiently takes him in hand and transforms him into the serious lover she requires. Nick Corley and Elizabeth Colwell are exact opposites, their actions and speech making a mockery of Elizabethan standards of courtly love.
At the pinnacle of this troupe of comedians, two actors stand out. The Celia of Sarah Nicole Deaver is a creature of off-beat physical gestures and facial expressions. She is a comic delight every time she steps on stage. In sheer goofiness she is matched by Jonathan Higginbotham as the country bumpkin William, a rejected suitor of Audrey. He takes the dumb country boy stereotype to a new level of buffoonery and wrings laughs from the audience. The entire company, some of whom are double—or triple—cast, perform smoothly under director Paul Mullins. The efforts of the director and cast are helped by the elegant scenic design of Brittany Vasta, lit by Tony Galaska; by Nikki Delhomme’s beautifully appropriate costuming; and by the level of expertise of fight director Rick Sordelet’s work.
As You Like It is arguably the best of all Shakespeare’s comedies—sharply different from the broad farce of The Comedy of Errors or Two Gentlemen of Verona, but lighter than the later All’s Well That Ends Well or The Tempest. It is playful and romantic—a perfect evening’s entertainment. I strongly recommend you make a trip to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison to enjoy the magic that is Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
As You Like It is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through September 28, 2019. For tickets and information, visit shakespearenj.org.