In the two weeks following fall break, music and poetry rang through the Shi Center Garden, summoned first by the powerful voice of junior Anna Muh. With her opening exclamation of “All the World’s a Stage,” she invited audiences night after night into the magical world of “As You Like It.” Originally written by William Shakespeare in 1599, the play was adapted to musical format in 2017 by Shaina Taub and Laura Woolery and was recognized by The New York Times as one of the best plays of the year. Furman Theatre Arts Department’s take on this lighthearted comedy brought the captivating story to life with their immersive staging and talented, communicative actors.
Much of the drama in the musical centers on the contrast between city and wilderness, as characters journey into the wilderness to learn more about themselves and one other. The story opens in a city ruled by the heavy hand of Duke Frederick, played expertly by Jason Roberts, who made the character as intimidating as the chorus that accompanied his every entrance would suggest. Duke Frederick has just taken power from his older sister, Duke Senior (Wallis Lucas) and banished her from the city. Left behind is her daughter, Rosalind (Mabel Prince), who has been allowed to stay because of her close relationship with her cousin, Duke Frederick’s daughter Celia (Emily Enlow). Prince and Enlow take the stage with all the charm and wit of the typical Shakespeare heroine, making them a dynamic duo like no other.
Meanwhile, other family contentions brew in the home of noble Oliver de Boys, played by Andra Enache, who matches Roberts in capturing her character’s sternness. His younger brother Orlando, portrayed with a perfect balance of sensitivity and heroism by Cole Becherer, is tired of living life under Oliver’s control. He decides to enter the Duke’s wrestling match to prove that he can live up to his family name. An upbeat and exciting scene, the audience truly felt that like they were part of the drama; sitting in the front row, I was asked to hold the championship wrestling belt, with strict orders to handle with care or fear of facing the Duke’s wrath. Orlando wins the match against Bronco (William Bickerstaff), the undefeated champion, then proceeds to see Rosalind and immediately falls in love with her. Yet Rosaline is banned by her uncle following the match, forcing Rosalind and Celia to flee into the forest in search of Celia’s mother. Disguised as peasants Ganymede and Aliena, Rosaline and Celia wander into the woods with Orlando following close behind.
Arriving in the forest of Arden, they find that Duke Senior has made another kingdom for herself and her followers where the tyranny of the city has been replaced by love and charity. Interestingly, many of the actors are double-cast as characters in Arden and members of Frederick’s court, meaning each has alter egos for their city counterparts. The only discontent in Arden comes from Anna Muh’s Jaques, who protests the people’s use and abuse of the forest’s resources. Muh is equal parts charming and commanding in her role, and her oppositions to Duke Senior’s merriment make for interesting scenes of tension between Muh and Lucas. The other characters of Arden complete the narrative with love stories to compliment Rosalind and Orlando's. All the actors brought creativity and sensitivity to their roles, portraying earnest affection and bringing to life the typical love triangles and false identity crises that can become somewhat tedious in Shakespeare’s other work.
Through these overtures, the characters begin to form more awareness of their true selves. Rosalind, deciding not to hide her feeling for Orlando anymore, organizes a quadruple wedding (Celia has also decided to marry Oliver, who came to Arden to look for Orlando). The celebrations are interrupted by the appearance of a sword-wielding Duke Frederick, presumably there to kill Duke Senior. However, in a shift played most touchingly by Roberts, he is moved by seeing his daughter getting married and decides to join the celebration in Arden and restore Duke Senior to power. Even Jaques puts down his plaintiveness and joins the festivities, and the play closes the same reflection that it opened with, “All the World’s a Stage.”
This show was excellent on every front. Each actor truly brought their character to life, building their individual personalities while playing into the show’s larger plot. The entire cast sang well, guided by the band (Meghan Reimers – conductor, piano, Shawn Allen – guitar, and Greg Day – bass), who expertly performed the music. The costumes (Margaret Rose Caterisano) reflected the essence of each character and the choreography (Michael Cherry), especially in group numbers, captured the liveliness and celebration of the setting. Understudies for this show were Matt Bulter as Orlando, Mae Mae Collins as Rosalind, and Emily Lackey as Duke Senior, who all starred in their respective roles for a cover performance.
The venue and staging were an ideal match for the show. The Shi Center Garden was equally functional as both the city and the forest, thereby bringing the symbolism of the forest to front of mind for the audience. Jaques rebukes the people of Arden for killing too many deer for food and Orlando for carving Rosalind’s name into the trees. These rebukes come to life in the garden, and invite reflection on what sustainability messages can be taken from this work. Leaving the play, each audience came away with much to consider on the importance of community and self-discovery, and most importantly with a reminder that love can be found anywhere when sought.