Encore Michigan

What’s not to like with Pigeon Creek’s ‘As You Like It’?

Review November 12, 2018 David Kiley

SOMEWHERE IN WESTERN MICHIGAN–The production of As You Like It currently touring Western Michigan does everything that Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company does best.

It’s a comedy with gender-blind casting and plenty of doubling. It’s filled with music brilliantly chosen that makes the audience laugh with recognition at the multi-layered meanings. Most importantly, it has a cast that takes pure joy in performing Shakespeare and does so with an infectious delight that can’t help but spill over into the audience.

The play is just out-and-out fun, as a comedy is meant to be. And the actors know how to deliver Shakespearean dialog so that it is clearly understood by a modern audience that may not have as much familiarity with the poetic forms that the Bard was known to use. They know it isn’t enough to enunciate. They have to be immersed in their roles and deliver it so that one wonders why anyone thinks Shakespeare is hard to understand.

Directed by Dennis Henry, this As You Like It is set in the 1960s, with the Forest of Arden a place for beatniks and hippies, living a life free of the conventionality and authoritarianism of the angry court. Only the wrestling scene is anachronistic, moving forward several decades to be performed as a modern pro wrestling match with chants, staplers, chairs and an opening song familiar to jocks and their fans.

With two cultures at loggerheads with each other, As You Like It works well in the 60’s as the banished older duke takes his attendants out into the forest to live free of conventionality. Meanwhile, pairs of lovers woo each other in disguises and a dizzying amount of cross-dressing that blurs lines of gender identity both from Shakespeare’s original writing and the casting choices that Henry makes.

Kathleen Bode’s costuming is delightful, giving a mod look to the two princesses, and alternately decking people out in stuffy suits or relaxed hippie garb, according to the degree to which we are to sympathize with them.

Lauren Vesbit puts in a stand-out performance as Rosalind. She bubbles with a charisma that makes it easy to believe that Orlando and Phoebe both would fall instantly in love with her. While sometimes Rosalind is given over to a bit of melancholy, Vesbit gives her a spritely spirit and energy that is always a delight to watch.

Riley Van Ess continues to grow with this company, putting in a lovable performance as Orlando, who is easy to sympathize with, even when he is smarting off to Jacques in a delightful exchange that he clearly gets the better of. Van Ess gives Orlando both a nobility and a humble earthiness that works well for this role.

Scott Wright, a regular with Pigeon Creek, is outstanding as Touchstone. He goes from motley to lover, from fool to suitor, with an authentic credibility. In a company that mostly eschews traditional portrayals of Shakespearean characters, Wright comes closest to putting in a classical interpretation and performance.

Sarah Stark, another long-time member of the ensemble, gives whole new meaning to physical comedy with her portrayal of Audrey, the goatherd. Stark does not shy away from physical choices that are blatantly sexual even while her character remains oblivious to their effects and retains a naïve innocence that is nonetheless loud and bawdy.

Jaques, a melancholy attendant to the exiled duke, is always a scene-stealing role, and Brad Sytsma captures the character’s insouciance with an all black-clad beatnik who rarely removes his beret or sunglasses.

Scott Lange is the musical director and, as always, the music adds an extra dimension to the show, especially in this comedy, where Ashley Normand’s Amiens performs many ballads, ballads in which Lange sets Shakespeare’s words to the tune of Beatles and other 60s music. The choice was always a delight, as the unsung modern lyrics to the songs often seemed just as fitting as the ones that Shakespeare provided. Her performances and the participation of other Forest of Arden denizens made for many entertaining scenes.

Likewise, the music sung at the show’s beginning, intermission and ending also helped set the period and match modern music to Shakespeare’s themes.

Pigeon Creek puts on good Shakespeare, especially when it comes to the comedies, which is what they do best. As You Like It is a rollicking show that is pure entertainment for the full two and a half hours.