“As You Like It”:  Roughing it in the forest for love

Three of the cast are standing and looking down at one person.
"As You Like It" (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
The cast of "As You Like It" are on stage
“As You Like It” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

For this season’s outdoor offering by the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ, we get As You Like It, arguably Shakespeare’s best-loved romantic comedy. As presented at the outdoor amphitheater at the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station, it is a light-hearted confection, as airy as a summer’s breeze, in which wrongs are righted, identities revealed, philosophers are foolish and fools are philosophical, and true love triumphs over all.

The story is, by now, familiar. A banished Duke (Jeffrey M. Bender) and several loyal members of his court, including the melancholy philosopher Jaques (Clark Carmichael), take refuge in the Forest of Arden. The usurper Duke Frederick (Carmichael in a dual role), after many years, also banishes the former duke’s daughter, Rosalind (Billie Wyatt), and Orlando (Jose Gamo), each finding their separate ways to the forest. Frederick’s daughter Celia (Brtianna Martinez), not wishing to be parted from her cousin, leaves with Rosalind, and they take with them the court jester Touchstone (Matthew Radford Davies). To avoid possible problems, Rosalind disguises herself as “Ganymede” and travels as brother and sister with Celia as “Aliena”.

Romantic complications ensue for all in the forest. “Ganymede”, on meeting Orlando, offers to cure his infatuation with Rosalind by pretending to be Rosalind and be wooed by Orlando. Touchstone, who disdains country life, nevertheless falls for the over-ripe charms of the milkmaid Audrey (Jennifer Joplin). Orlando’s wicked elder brother Oliver (Christian Frost), on a mission to find and return Celia and seeking to kill Orlando, meets Celia, and the two fall instantly in love. Meanwhile, the shepherdess Phoebe (Emily S. Chang) equally falls in love with “Ganymede”,  spurning the affections of the lovelorn shepherd Silvius (Jason Schlaman).

The cast, many of whom play multiple roles, is headed by a delightful, seemingly easy performance by Bille Wyatt and an excellent performance of two men each consumed by their particular emotions by Clark Carmichael. The company has been directed by Jemma Alix Levy to keep things light, even at times giddy — such as Rosalind and Celia squealing with the excitement of new-found love. They deliver both comedy and romance with equal style. While As You Like It contains one of the best-known Shakespearean soliloquies, the sobering “Seven Ages of Man”, and towards the end, the banished Duke is saddened when contemplating the possibility of giving up his idyllic forest life to rule again, the playwright adds these moments to give a touch of reality to the comic goings-on. He reverses the technique he’s learned in his tragedies of leavening gloom with a touch of comedy. Consider the Gravedigger in Hamlet or the Porter in Macbeth. The company handles this sobriety as skillfully as it does the humor.

The unit set by Gabby Trice, expertly lit by Jason Flamos, and the costumes of Paul Canada add a visual flair and grounding both at the court and in the forest. Special mention goes to Alexander Sovronsky’s original music, perfectly setting off Shakespeare’s lyrics.

As You Like It is a fairy story without any magical elements — save the enchantment of love. It is a delightful accompaniment to the summer season. I warmly encourage you to make the trip to Convent Station to enjoy As You Like It!

As You Like It is presented at the outdoor theater on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through July 14th, 2024. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to shakespearenj.org or call 973-408-5600.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.