Our second dose of Shakespearean comedy for summer 2014 doesn’t exactly follow that same formula as the first, but the similarities are unmistakable. Once again, in Shakespeare Carolina’s As You Like It we find four couples destined for wedlock and once again, a late bulletin from far away determines the final outcome. But the current comedy at Johnson Hall, on the Winthrop University campus, is a more mature example of Shakespeare’s handiwork than Love’s Labour’s Lost, the romp that was staged at the Uptown Green back in June.
The later script is more advanced in character development and differentiation. Orlando De Boys is the heroic and oppressed younger brother in the family while the elder brother Oliver, inheritor of their father’s estate, is a boorish, heartless bully. The good Orlando must run for his life, but only after catching the eye of Rosalind by besting the beastly wrestler that Oliver had hoped would destroy him. Not only does Orlando find refuge in the Forest of Arden, he finds a teeming colony of refugees, including a banished duchess and her lecherous clown, Touchstone — not a bad name for a lecher if you think about it.
You’ll also find some extra variety in the women these guys are pining for. Rosalind’s friend Celia is actually the daughter of the usurping Duke Frederick, and Phebe is a shepherdess. With all of this variety there is a lot more contrivance than we saw in Love’s Labour’s Lost, for Rosalind seems to be banished from Duke Frederick’s court about three heartbeats after Orlando. Needless to say, she hightails it to the same forest where the rest of civilization has transplanted, Celia tagging along.
Ah, but here the Bard reprises one of his best comic devices as Rosalind impersonates a man to ensure her safety in the wilderness. Katie Bearden transforms into this stripling Ganymede so effectively that I honestly felt she was more charming and alluring as a man than she was as a woman. This may very well have been director Sarah Provencal’s intent, for there are a couple of times, when Ganymede is tutoring Orlando on wooing, that Nathan Kelly Rouse as the bewildered student seems on the brink of kissing and mauling the faux courtier.
While Rosalind is disguised as Ganymede, she must also fend off the advances of a slutty country wench, Phebe. That provides a cringe-worthy cameo for Kylene Edson, who is cruelly spurning poor Silvius, raptly drooled by Sean Johnson. One love triangle isn’t quite enough in this merry wood, for while the course of vulgar love runs smooth for the zany S. Wilson Lee as Touchstone, Carley Walker as William is consumed with rustic despair. With Charles Holmes as Audrey, Touchstone is almost literally consumed by his ladylove, for Holmes is the same bloke who appears earlier as Charles the Wrestler, all the better when he bends his gender.
Amy Arpan as Celia and David Hayes as Oliver are the oddest of the couples, but you must remember that Shakespeare loved mismatches. Arpan has a nice archness observing her friend Rosalind in the throes of infatuation, and Hayes is a brutish, selfish, and corrupt elder brother. Yet the brothers need more help from Provencal, costume designers Amber Ellis and Heather Bucsh, and the ShakesCar design team to make the reasons for Oliver’s reformation more vivid. The change that comes over him is more convenient than moving.
Fortunately, there is no such glossing over the comedy. There are many outré performances here to spark your laughter, but it’s Bearden who will capture your heart.