Enter the Cincinnati Playhouse’s Shelterhouse Theatre for the current production of As You Like It and you’ll immediately sense you’re going to see an unusual Shakespearean production. A glowing red carpet is contrasts with a stage curtain of verdant green, a contest of passion and nature. The many characters — 17 actors play even more roles — are appareled more contemporary than classical, with vaguely Victorian flourishes. They speak Shakespeare’s poetry of love plainly, like everyday folks, in voices neither high-falutin nor declamatory. Joe Tilford’s scenic design is theatrically minimal but cleverly inventive from start to finish.
The central lovers, Orlando (Alvin Keith) and Rosalind (Sarah Dandridge), are wonderfully animated and perfectly matched, but the delight of this production derives as much from colorful supporting characters — especially the witty fool Touchstone (David Graham Jones, looking a bit like Salvador Dali and disseminating cascades of illogical logic) and a series of amusing country bumpkins, a slow-moving shepherd Coran (larger-than-life Brendan Averett), his forlorn protégé Silvius (played nervously by Bob Braswell) and two colorful young women, stubborn Phoebe (Rebeca Miller gives her a tenacious spirit) whom Silvius pines for and Audrey (Katherine Leigh), a luscious lump of willing flesh who wins Touchstone’s heart — a least for a month or two.
I’ve seen As You Like It many times, but Ed Stern’s final directorial outing for the Playhouse (co-staged with Michael Evan Haney) distills its warmth and goodwill better than any I’ve previously witnessed.
The bitter cold of the Forest of Arden (chilled with fluorescent light) melts into a carpet of Orlando’s love poems and then lush rose petals that rain down. Stern has blessed Cincinnati audiences for 20 years, and this production is a wonderful gift of love and joy that will be remembered for years to come.
AS YOU LIKE IT, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Nov. 6. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.