First produced circa 1603, William Shakespeare’s As You Like It was performed with great warmth and wit on Feb. 2nd by the Aquila Theatre Company as part of the N.C. State University Center Stage series. This pleasant pastoral comedy is set against a background of palace political intrigue. The play opens in a duchy in France; but most of it takes place in the “Forest of Arden,” which is either an Anglicization of France’s Ardennes Forest or, more likely, that famous forest located in Shakespeare’s native Warwickshire, in the geographical center of England. No matter. Shakespeare is teaching the audience a lesson in love, not geography; and the various and sundry romances of As You Like It provide a lot of variety.
New York City’s Aquila Theatre Company, which is justly famous for its minimalist productions, stages As You Like It for maximum laughs on a giant floor covering, magically transformed — via lighting tricks and a shower of autumn leaves — from the cold stone floor of the dark ducal castle from which the ambitious and impatient Duke Frederick (Howard Crossley) has usurped the dukedom of his genial older brother Duke Senior (also played by Howard Crossley) to various bucolic locations in the Forest of Arden, where the banished Duke Senior and his exiled court gambol with shepherds and other rustic types.
Crossley and his six fellow cast members from Aquila Theatre Company tackled 20 odd roles — some of them very odd — and created distinctive characterizations for each of them. In addition to playing the sunny Duke Senior and his treacherous and cruel younger brother Duke Frederick, with his heart of ice, Howard Crossley is delightful as the shepherd Corin, a natural philosopher whose well-meaning efforts to advise his friend Silvius (Damian Davis) in his courtship of the disdainful shepherdess Phoebe (Lucy Black). But she rudely rebuffs his romantic overtures.
Meanwhile, the buxom goatherd Audrey (Lucy Black) has set her cap for the former court fool Touchstone (James Lavender), who intends to give Audrey the slam-bam-thank you-ma’am treatment. But Touchstone’s interest in Audrey is aroused when he finds out that he has a romantic rival — but certainly no match — in young William (Damian Davis).
As amusing as they all are, these pastoral romances are merely sideshows to the main event, which is the love affair between Duke Senior’s beautiful daughter Rosalind (Leandra Ashton) and Orlando (Owen Young), the intrepid but impecunious younger son of the late Sir Rowland de Boys. Both Rosalind and Orlando remain in the court of Duke Frederick after Duke Senior is sent packing, but they flee to the Forest of Arden after Orlando has a bitter quarrel with his older brother Oliver (James Lavender) and unexpectedly defeats the court wrestler Charles (Damian Davis) in a rigged match and Duke Frederick dismisses Rosalind from his court. But when Rosalind flees, her best friend — Duke Frederick’s daughter Celia (Lauren Davis) — goes with her, much to the consternation of the fickle father.
From the first moment that they meet, so smitten is Orlando with Rosalind that he writes passels of poems to celebrate her beauty — and posts them all over the forest. Meanwhile, the much-flattered object of his affections has disguised herself as the handsome young man Ganymede, and offers to help Orlando perfect his techniques for wooing fair Rosalind — with hilarious results.
Director Kenn Sabberton has staged this classic romantic comedy with great gusto on a reflective floor covering with hay bales as props to suggest different locales in the idyllic Forest of Arden. Leandra Ashton and Owen Young give warm and winning performances as the poor, hopelessly in love Rosalind and Orlando; Lauren Davis is a delight as the spunky Celia; Howard Crossley plays his three parts to perfection; Damian Davis and Lucy Black are amusing adversaries as Silvius and Phoebe; and Lucy Black cuts fine figures both as the amorous Audrey and the melancholy Jaques. But it is James Lavender who steals the show with his slump-shouldered walk in his jockey’s outfit as Touchstone the fool, who unexpectedly, and very much against his will, finds himself a fool for love as far as Audrey is concerned. Lavender’s cameos as Oliver and Orlando’s faithful old servant Adam are icing on a delectable comic cake.