by Beki Pineda

AS YOU LIKE IT – Written by William Shakespeare; Directed by Carolyn Howarth. Produced by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (University Theatre, CU campus) through August 10. Tickets available at 303/492-8008 or coloradoshakes.org.

Courtesy Jennifer M. Koskinen

Well, the indoor season has now opened at the Shakes and aren’t we happy!! The first show initiated (the second – KING CHARLES III – starts on July 20) is a sort of country-western version of AS YOU LIKE IT. The entire casts jumps into the theme with both feet with a RING OF FIRE-type rousing musical number just to give us an indication of how silly they plan to be. The simple set uses flowing curtains and boxes and ladders artfully placed to become various pieces of furniture as the play progresses.  It gave the feeling of a bunch of friends who got together to tell this story in an almost abandoned theatre just for their own fun. We just happened to be there.

But what a bunch of friends. CSF lured John Hutton (who looks more and more like Sir Ian McKellen) back to Colorado to play the dueling Dukes Frederick and Senior as well as silly bit of gender-bending as Audrey. The stunning Emily Van Fleet returns as Rosalind, the only actor not required to play multiple roles. Even Shunte Lofton as Celia, Rosalind’s partner in crime, pulls double duty as Vicar Martext. Celia provides a sensible down-to-earth foil to Rosalind’s over the top excitement at their adventure. An equal opportunity cross-dressing cast also shows the always brilliant Leslie O’Carroll to take the male roles of LeBeau and Jaques and female role of the rambunctious Phebe. She is the butt of one of the funniest bits of humor as Rosalind warns the homely Phebe to “Sell when  you can; you are not for all markets.” Seth Dhonau as Orlando and Sean Michael Cummings as Charles, the Duke’s wrestler, have a very well choreographed and creative wrestling match while standing on opposite sides of the stage and never touching. They react realistically to slaps and throwdowns delivered to the air, resulting in a hilarious match up.

There is so much unwritten possibility in terms of facial expression and comic business in-between the speeches Shakespeare has given his characters. Since he wrote for the great comic actors in his company – Will Kempe, Thomas Pope, Richard Cowley and others – he knew how they were capable of enhancing the humor with their unspoken antics. Director Howarth’s deep experience with the works of Shakespeare allows her to assist her company in developing all those unwritten comic nuances, creating a very funny show. Additionally in Shakespeare’s time, women formed a great part of his audiences. We find him catering to the ladies in the audience in this script that shows a strong woman with a lively interest in sex fooling the man she wants into taking courting lessons from her for her. Even the country women in the play best the men in mental duels. He gives Rosalind an epilogue asking for applause and explaining to the men what just happened.

The original music composed by Sam Misner and performed by the entire cast provided a new element for a familiar play. Traditional western instruments were utilized including a musical saw and drumming on the various boxes found on stage. Clare Henkel’s costumes included jeans, suspenders and an endless supply of cowboy boots. The simple set designed by Stephen James lets the audience concentrate on the action on stage while the lighting design by Katie Gruenhagen led us from the court of Duke Fredrick to the Forest of Arden (Shakespeare’s subtle homage to his wife Anne Hathaway’s family connection to the House of Arden back in Stratford).

A WOW factor of 8.5!!