Love's Labor's Last

The brain rests while the heart frolics in Live Theatre Workshop's version of 'As You Like It.'

At some point, everybody needs to get away from it all. Go out to the country, live simply, commune with nature, philosophize, sort out your priorities, wear funny clothes, fall in love, wrestle a lion to the ground and participate in a spur-of-the-moment quadruple wedding.

Stay out there long enough, and eventually you'll be able to come back and live happily ever after within civilization, more enlightened for your sylvan interlude.

That's the lesson of Shakespeare's 1599 comedy As You Like It, and indeed, it's the lesson of most pastoral comedies. City slickers leave their troubles behind and, though surrounded by rural zanies, finally manage to connect with What Really Matters. It's not such a leap from Shakespeare to Green Acres, after all.

In this spirit, Live Theatre Workshop has mounted a back-to-basics production of As You Like It. This effort, directed by Dana Armstrong, doesn't delve too deeply into gender and sexuality issues (the heroine, of course, disguises herself as a young man and does some gender-bending role playing with her unwitting suitor). It makes the forest setting even more idyllic than Shakespeare intended, a place where the weather is always fine and there's no greater hardship than wiping the dirt off your face.

This production isn't as polished as Arizona Theater Company's version nearly three years ago, but on its own terms, it's quite pleasing.

Tall, blond and blithe, Sybille Bruun maintains steady, cheerful control over the proceedings as Rosalind, a young woman banished from a usurping duke's court. For safety's sake, she disguises herself as a man and, accompanied by the duke's daughter, Celia (the irrepressible Holli Thenhaus), sets off for Arden Forest to seek her father, Duke Senior, the realm's deposed but rightful ruler.

Young nobleman Orlando (played smoothly and gently by Jeremy Thompson) is also on the lam, fearing persecution from his own older brother. Orlando, who fell in love at first sight with Rosalind back at court, ends up posting lovesick poems around the forest, and the disguised Rosalind eventually tutors him in the art of love.

Meanwhile, Duke Senior and his retinue are living happily in the woods--all except for the duke's moody retainer Jaques. (That imprecise spelling isn't the only odd thing about this quasi-French atmosphere; Arden is home to lions and palm trees, which makes you wonder if these exiles have wandered down to the Belgian Congo.) Jaques (Josh Fox) delivers the play's most famous passage, insisting that all the world's a stage on which play out the seven ages of man.

That's the deepest philosophizing you'll find in As You Like It. It was a fairly banal musing in Shakespeare's day. Otherwise, we're offered a simple grown-up fairy tale without fairies--aside from an appearance at the end by Hymen, the nuptial god. Shakespeare designated this role as "a person representing Hymen," making the character's divinity ambiguous; in her only misstep, Armstrong has Hymen's lines delivered by a bewildering, disembodied voice that renders Shakespeare's contrived happy ending even less believable.

The seams show at a couple of judicious cuts, but Armstrong and the cast otherwise keep the action moving neatly. One standout character actor is the perpetually amused and amusing Cliff Madison as Touchstone, the wise if self-contradicting fool. The large cast of "country copulatives" also lavishes such good actors as Ben Fritz, James Mitchell Gooden and Bruce Bieszki on small roles. Most of the participants have an easy way with the Elizabethan language, and Heather Long's costumes have a comfy, lived-in Renaissance look.

This production may not get below the play's surface, but at least Armstrong and company give us a surface that's all frothy meringue.

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