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Theatre can be so many things, but one is the intelligent, joyous entertainment exemplified by Playmakers Repertory Company’s first Mainstage production of the fall, in the newly refurbished Paul Green Theater in the UNC Center for Dramatic Art. William Shakespeare’s As You Like It is an enjoyable play no matter how it is staged, with its disguises, transformations, adventures, and derring-do, its music and dance and foolish pratfalls. Bubbling with wit, heart, and sass, PRC’s zesty production makes it delightful.
PRC’s producing artistic director Joseph Haj has kept this tale of wrongs righted, disguises stripped away, and love triumphant in an amorphous past near enough to be familiar and far enough away to be magical. Happily he has not made the pace frenetic; things move right along, but the sense is of having all the time in the world. Led by Marianne Miller as a radiant Rosalind and her alter-ego, Gannymede, the cast romps, but does not race, down the path to earthly love in the Forest of Arden, the outcasts and runaways thumbing their noses at the meanness of courtly power that has put them there. It is a treat to see Miller acting something other than the ingénue. As Rosalind banished from her uncle’s castle, she kicks off her pointy-toed girl shoes, pulls up Gannymede’s pants and strides out into the world with wit and daring and a good deal of swagger. Jeffery Blair Cornell does a wonderful job playing both the bad Duke and the good Duke — it’s fantastic to watch him do it. Scott Ripley is hilarious skulking around as Jaques, spouting sardonic philosophy until he too is converted to a real and kindly life in the Forest.
There is all manner of pairing in this play, the better to contrast various forms of love. Rosalind and her cousin Celia — charmingly acted by Alice Whitley — both Duke’s daughters, stand against the earthy Phebe and Audrey, who supply some of the most outrageous carrying-on. Kelsey Didion as Phebe is a hoot in her pursuit of Gannymede/Rosalind, who must evade her advances while testing the affections of her own target, Orlando (very nicely played by Derrick Ledbetter). Even funnier is Durham actress Katja Hill, as shepherdess Audrey. Hill has great comic timing, and in her scenes with Jimmy Keiffer as the fool Touchstone, she really shines. Keiffer, who is a big man, wears a gray three-piece suit and bowler hat as his motley — and makes them so. His performance is a highlight of the show.
All the costumes are interesting; they are the products of Anne Kennedy, and they work well with the simple forested set by Peter Ksander, under the changeable lighting of Charlie Morrison. Wonderful, witty, original music and sound design by Michael Yionoulis and Ryan J. Gastelum add hugely to the rich texture of the show. And of course, there are the songs played and sung on stage. It is so satisfying to see all the design components of an artwork meshing so well; they increase the pleasure that comes from the graceful acting of this smart, lighthearted play.
As You Like It continues at the Paul Green Theater through Oct. 10. See our calendar for details.