‘As You Like It’ zips along with elegance and wit in Old Globe’s Shakespeare Festival opener
Love as a game — of rules and role-playing and more than a little subterfuge on the side — is at the briskly beating heart of director Jessica Stone’s “As You Like It,” the Bard’s saga of court intrigue and “rustic revelry” whose lush and funny Old Globe staging makes for an entirely rewarding Shakespeare Festival opener.
That notion of play is also at center stage courtesy of the show’s dominant visual image: A huge reproduction of a French Rococo painting with an amusingly bawdy back story.
The artwork is Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “A Game of Hot Cockles,” a late-1700s piece that on first glance depicts a pastoral and romantic scene of people lazing around in nature. As it turns out, the game of the title —you could look this up — involved sticking your head in someone’s lap while someone else spanked your rear end.
This was well before Twitter (not to mention Tinder), and who are we to judge another era’s diversions? But the image, besides fitting perfectly into Stone’s chosen setting of 18th-century France, gets at the frisky spirit coursing through this story of what the court jester Touchstone at one point archly calls these “country copulatives.”
There’s plenty more to “As You Like It” than that hot-blooded streak, of course: It’s as much a story of politics and proper gender roles and the foul decadence of the court vs. the salutary power of nature.
It’s also a piece shot through with music — more than any other Shakespeare play — and Stone, her capable cast and the string-and-accordion-buoyed work of composer Obadiah Eaves serve that element beautifully.
As the play’s heroine, Rosalind, the wonderfully funny Meredith Garretson is rarely more in command than when her character is completely at sea. That’s generally when Rosalind, who has escaped the court and her cruel uncle, Duke Frederick, is posing as a man named Ganymede for the purpose of fooling the guy she loves, Orlando (a smartly understated Jon Orsini).
It’s a treat to watch Garretson second-guess every “macho” pose of Rosalind’s, and to witness her way of showing how the character gradually gets more comfortable in Ganymede’s skin.
Rosalind has another crucial relationship in the play: Her deep friendship with cousin Celia, Duke Frederick’s daughter, played with comic verve by Nikki Massoud. The two have fled the court to the Forest of Arden together, with Celia taking on the disguise of a poor woman named Aliena.
Arden is also where Duke Senior, Frederick’s genial brother and Rosalind’s dad, has been exiled. (Cornell Womack plays both roles, and has a resounding way of nailing the contrasts between them.) Orlando likewise finds his way there, in flight from his own fratricide-minded brother, Oliver (Aubrey Deeker Hernandez).
Duke Senior and his entourage are cold and hungry but seemingly not too bummed out at their lot at life: The Duke voices lovely lines about finding “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in every thing.”
No, the guy who has cornered the market on exquisite misery is Jaques, the aggressively melancholy nobleman who lords over his own private Kingdom of Emo.
It’s a meaty role for the right actor, and Mark H. Dold is just that, bringing out all the self-indulgent comedy of the character while still doing justice to the more sobering tones of the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech Jaques delivers.
He also has a good foil in Touchstone, whom Vincent Randazzo plays with a pleasingly wry wit and a bit of a John Leguizamo comic vibe.
Stone makes some clever adjustments to the text, moving one scene between Orlando and his hobbled servant Adam (Joseph Kamal) into the middle of a key moment between Rosalind and Celia, who stand embracing in shadows during the interim; it’s a good way of paralleling the duos’ imminent journeys to the forest. (Rosalind and Celia’s early exchanges capture the pair’s affections and excitations but could use a little more syncopation to their rhythms.)
The director — who’s taking on Shakespeare here for the first time — also interpolates scenes of Duke Frederick and Co. back in court, conceived ingeniously (via what resemble film vignettes) behind the scrim that bears the Fragonard painting.
Tobin Ost’s stately court set opens up to an impressive forest of soaring lodgepoles, complete with campfire. The gifted David Israel Reynoso’s costumes also are sumptuous and lovingly detailed.
And Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting flatters the outdoor Davies Festival Theatre setting, where Amiens (sweet-voiced Summer Broyhill, part of the talented corps of Globe/University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Program actors in the show) sings: “Under the greenwood tree / Who loves to lie with me?”
That “lie” has loaded meaning in this comedy of romantic deception and reckoning, where the little word “if” also takes on much gravity: “Much virtue in ‘if,’” as Touchstone counsels.
It’s wise to remember that even the verdant forest has its lions and snakes, and life and love are tentative and conditional. Just the rules of the game.
‘As You Like It’
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.) Through July 21.
Where: Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Old Globe, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
Note: An earlier version of this review referred incorrectly to projections in the show.
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