Shakespeare saved some of his most outsized characters for “As You Like It,” and not just in that its plucky heroine is “more than common tall.” Rosalind has become one of the most beloved females in the canon, so it can be easy to forget the rest of the colorful folk surrounding her, from the bawdy Touchstone, the court jester, to the melodramatic Jaques, the roving malcontent who posits that “all the world’s a stage.” They all come out to play again in the Acting Company’s production at the New Victory, a lively if occasionally frenetic interpretation of the Bard’s rousing comedy.
A quick summary betrays the plot’s cheerful absurdity: Rosalind (Elizabeth Stahlmann), the daughter of exiled Duke Senior, falls in love with Orlando (Joseph Midyett), the son of the current duke’s enemy. Rosalind is banished and escapes to the forest disguised as a man, along with the duke’s daughter, Celia, and who should meet Rosalind in her manly guise but Orlando? There are plenty of shepherds and lots of wordplay. Spoiler alert: Everyone gets married in the end.
Directed by Dan Rothenberg, the production starts off with a slow, dingy Jazz Age feel: Matt Saunders’ set looks like a speakeasy fell into the middle of a Christmas-tree farm. Three phonographs are wheeled about the stage throughout, reminding us that this is the 1920s while infusing theatricality into the proceedings. At first the vibrant characters feel constrained; they are overanimated, like a clown showing up in a Eugene O’Neill drama. Once they make their way to the Forest of Arden, however, these trappings fall away, allowing the players to stretch out and fill the now wide-open spaces. Even the stage brightens, thanks to Saunders’ bold, graphic jungle that recalls Henri Rousseau’s lush landscapes.
The delightful Stahlman brings a warm buoyancy to Rosalind, whose wit and verbose tendencies are tempered by an overarching sense of fun. She jokes even through her love-struck tears: “I’ll go find a shadow and sigh till he comes.” Christopher Michael McFarland is also notable as Touchstone, and Noah Putterman, as Amiens, employs a sweet tenor that compliments the lilting, deceptively simple tunes by Michael Kiley.
“Accessible” has become a dirty word where Shakespeare is concerned, and it was on the wind in the audience during intermission. Rothenberg, who was inspired by Maurice Sendack’s children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are,” fills the stage with woodland creatures (costumed by Terese Wadden) that frolic between scenes to the delight of the inevitable children in the New Victory audience. It’s silly, sure, maybe even a bit distracting, and, yes, it’s accessible. Still, it’s impossible to deny the joyful celebration of the art of theater, a theme that runs throughout “As You Like It.” Put snobbery aside, says Rothenberg; it’s time to embrace our childishness.
Presented by the Acting Company, in association with the Guthrie Theater, at the New Victory Theater, 209 W. 42nd St., NYC. March 1–10. (646) 223-3010 or www.newvictory.org.
Critic’s Score: B+