A gypsy in a colorful headdress giggles from a balcony above the stage as she enchants the characters below with several careful taps of her wand. In the multi-layered narrative that follows, the characters venture into a thick forest, learn to forgive and forget, and fall madly in love.
“As You Like It,” one of Shakespeare’s mid-career comedies set in a small kingdom in France, tells the story of Rosalind, daughter of a banished duke, and Orlando, a young gentleman of the kingdom who falls in love with her at first sight. Both individually flee the kingdom to the nearby Forest of Arden, Rosalind to visit her father, who had been living there, and Orlando to escape persecution from his older brother Oliver, and a new cast of country folk enters the picture, providing their own complex love stories.
Rosalind, disguised as a man named “Ganymede,” and her cousin Celia, posing as “Aliena,” encounter Orlando and his servant Adam, and “Ganymede” promises Orlando, who decorates the forest with pages of poetry professing his love for Rosalind, that he will marry Rosalind the following day.
Director Jane Page set this production of “As You Like It” in the swampy setting of Louisiana’s bayou country, west of New Orleans. Clad in period attire, members of the cast’s ensemble greeted audience members at the opening performance of the play Saturday evening, explaining, in perfect southern accents, what to do with the decorated fans placed on their seats — face the sides decorated with grass patterns toward the actors for all scenes in the Forest of Arden.
The Robert Cohen Theater, named for an esteemed professor of Drama at UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts and modeled after Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, with seats on three sides of the stage, provided a welcoming and intimate space for the performance. The close proximity of the actors to the audience also allowed each actor’s facial expressions to be seen clearly in the small venue. The minimalistic yet effective set design, including hanging green strands of yarn and a pale green carpet to create the Forest of Arden, also served this production’s setting well.
In addition to the beautiful poetry of Shakespeare and the highly energetic performances from the talented cast, perhaps one of the most pleasant aspects of this production was the occasional incorporation of live music. Accompanied by Hymen, the gypsy, on acoustic guitar and occasionally other members of the cast on accordion and trombone, the ensemble performed songs about springtime happiness throughout the play that gently propelled the story forward.
Rehearsals for “As You Like It” began over spring break, yet the cast has been preparing for their roles since the fall.
Rosemary Brownlow, (Rosalind) spotted Craig Brauner (Orlando) while practicing for her callback audition in Aldrich Park, and suggested they practice together. When the hopefuls arrived at the audition, Page let each actor choose whom to read with for the audition, and Brownlow and Brauner eagerly chose each other. Brownlow and Brauner, both MFA students in UCI’s Drama department, have had unshakeable chemistry in their roles ever since and brilliantly showcased this at Saturday evening’s performance.
For Brownlow, the play’s earlier scenes, before Rosaline disguises herself as Ganymede, were the most challenging to master.
“ The court scenes didn’t feel right until last week,” she explained. “The challenge is finding the arc and I think I just found that recently.”
“For me, it was his arc,” Brauner said. “Falling in love and staying in love. Riding the playful nature of the show.”
Both actors have played roles in Shakespeare plays previously, which certainly showed in their effortless delivery of their poetic lines.
Yet every successful pair of leads needs the support of a strong ensemble, and the ensemble of “As You Like It” certainly provided an abundance of the necessary support.
“Everything is dependent on working together,” said Catherine Nickerson, a member of the ensemble. “If one person makes a mistake, everyone is affected.”
“I’m grateful for the chance to work with all my classmates,” said Caitlin Brook Scott, who played the omniscient “Hymen.” “I’ve never been part of a community so loving. Even if I had one line, it would be worth it to be in the show.”
Spring quarter is certainly an appropriate time for this story of love and forgiveness and this production of “As You Like It” makes the timeless concept of “happily ever after” beautiful in its simplicity.
“As You Like It” will be playing at the Robert Cohen Theater on campus until next Sunday, May 4.
For more Shakespeare productions on campus, stay tuned for “Romeo and Juliet” and “Twelfth Knight,” which will be performed at the New Swan Theater on campus this summer.