'As You Like It' rises on risks, deft touches Theater: Director Irene Lewis and a fine cast present high-sprited, likable Shakespeare.

November 21, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In his musical "Into the Woods," Stephen Sondheim contends: "Anything can happen in the woods." That's certainly the case in Shakespeare's pastoral comedy "As You Like It," which is receiving a high-spirited production at Center Stage.

Most of what happens in Shakespeare's woods is orchestrated by Rosalind, the character described as "the most admirable personage in all of Shakespeare" by literary critic Harold Bloom in his new book, "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human."

In director Irene Lewis' production, Diana LaMar's admirable Rosalind is giddy and girlish, but determined. Banished from court because her father is out of favor, she disguises herself as a man named Ganymede, only to run into Orlando, the man she fell in love with just before she was exiled.

Stephen Barker Turner's Orlando isn't half as clever as Rosalind, which may be why he submits to Ganymede's lessons to cure him of love. The cure, however, is really Rosalind's ruse to learn more about the man she fell for at first sight, and to teach him a thing or two about love in the process.

LaMar and Turner make an excellent pair. LaMar's Rosalind may be small and sprite-like, but she always leads in this Shakespearean mating dance, and Turner's Orlando, rugged and exuding decency, is a good counterweight for her rather crafty personality.

Rosalind and Orlando are one of four couples in "As You Like It," with each of the other three serving as a foil to the main couple and demonstrating a different facet of romance.

Rosalind's beloved cousin Celia (warm, sisterly Mari Nelson) and Orlando's brother, Oliver (a cruel, but later chastened Tony Ward), represent romance for romance's sake. Shepherds Silvius resolutely romantic TJ Edwards) and Phebe (buxom Elizabeth Meadows Rouse) represent a love-hate relationship. And the unlikely pair of Audrey, the goatherd (Katie Barrett, looking like // an adorably sooty Raggedy Ann), and Touchstone, the court jester (the inimitable clown Robert Dorfman), represent the old maxim that opposites attract.

As melancholy Jaques, the play's outsider and the only character who remains unmoved by the magic of the woods, Firdous Bamji is a perpetually foreboding presence. Sick at heart and, by the end of this production, in ill health as well, he removes himself from the joyous concluding festivities.

Director Lewis has taken some chances with her production, which is performed in Elizabethan dress, but on an abstract set. She includes an on-stage musician (Karen Hansen), who walks through the action playing instruments ranging from Renaissance strings to bowed saw and accordion. And Lewis has cast local deaf actor Willy Conley as the country bumpkin, William. Conley's partly signed, partly spoken interchange with Dorfman's Touchstone is one of the evening's funniest scenes.

But though such touches work splendidly, the three-hour production lags about two-thirds of the way through, lacking Lewis' usual concision and swiftness.

Still, there's a lot to like in this "As You Like It" -- a play that leaves its characters happier, saner and more at peace, and conveys much of those feelings to the audience as well.

'As You Like It'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays and 1 p.m. Dec. 2. Through Dec. 20

Tickets: $10-$45

Call: 410-332-0033

Pub Date: 11/21/98

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