‘As You Like It’ brings out best in fairer sex

Celia (Molly Bernard) pretends to marry Rosalind disguised as Ganymede (Sepideh Moafi) and Orlando, (Leicester Landon) during a dress rehearsal for the Chautauqua Theater Company production of William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It,’ directed by Jackson Gay, in Bratton Theater. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Lauren Smart | Guest Reviewer

In Shakespeare’s canon, only one woman joins the ranks of Prospero and Puck to deliver an epilogue, a fact with which Rosalind opens the play’s final speech.

As You Like It contains some of the Bard’s strongest, wittiest females, and Chautauqua Theater Company’s production, which opened Saturday night, brings out the best in the fairer sex.

The moment Rosalind (Sepideh Moafi) and Celia (a delightful Molly Bernard) take the stage — in stunning evening gowns designed by Oana Botez — they establish an engaging chemistry. The two happily navigate the play together, with an affectionate banter interrupted occasionally by the clown Touchstone (Dave Quay) who accompanies them to the Forest of Arden.

Director Jackson Gay strays from a strict interpretation by setting the play loosely in the time of the Great Depression. That gave set designer Lee Savage the opportunity to experiment with the pastoral elements of the play, transforming Bratton Theater into a dichotomy of wild civility.

When Rosalind ventures to the Forest of Arden after her banishment by Duke Frederick (Andrew Weems), the brambling trees interspersed in the green wallpapered saloon resemble light poles on a city street. The irreverent treatment of the pastoral tradition is written into As You Like It but is often ignored by designers.

Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden is no tranquil pasture for pure shepherds who live simply. Instead, it is a place for strumpets like Touchstone’s beloved Audrey and rogues like Jaques. Here, the collaborative efforts of CTC designers align perfectly with the Bard, giving the songster Amiens (Max Roll) a white tailcoat more at home in a speakeasy than a wood.

Music in this production is not limited to the vagabonds in the forest. Sound designer and composer Justin Ellington wrote the melodies for Shakespeare’s lyrics, as well as an additional song, all in tune with the 1930s setting. The jazz and blues riffs underscore scene changes and pivotal moments in a story that explores love and identity.

In its very title, As You Like It implies an exploration of the malleability of human motivation and desire. Man is proved changeable in Rosalind’s disguise as the young page Ganymede as in the double casting of Andrew Weems as Duke Frederick in court and Duke Senior, the brother he banished to Arden. Differentiated by a hat and a gentler manner, Weems seems much more at ease as the mild Duke Senior.

In a bolder move, Gay casts Jessica Savage as Jaques. Typically played by a man, here the melancholy Jaques is a femme fatale, slouching into her anomie as she snarls vitriol. As a woman, the negative Jaques seems a natural counterpoint to Rosalind’s sincerity, as she endorses the love of a good man and the sanctity of marriage. Moafi captures Rosalind’s warm-hearted playfulness while in disguise as a young page and in her more alluring female form.

Although Rosalind uses her disguise as the boy page Ganymede to gain agency, the driving actions throughout the entire play are hers. When she and Celia escape in the night, the Duke orders her beloved Orlando (Leicester Landon) to find them, and he is quickly followed by his brother Oliver (Max Woertendyke). When Oliver lays eyes on the dissembled Celia, he vows to remain in the forest as her husband.

Shakespeare’s preternatural use of men as mere devices in a plot invented by the women demands strong performances from all involved, but particularly the women. In CTC’s As You Like It, the actors rose to challenge, but none so valiantly as Moafi. The Bard’s heroines combined, Moafi captures the wit of Beatrice, the kindness of Viola and a Katherine who need not be tamed. When she delivers her final words, she claims, “My way is to conjure you.” And in truth, her performance seemed nothing short of magical.

Lauren Smart is a freelance journalist based in Dallas and a theater critic for BroadwayWorld.com. She has covered the arts for magazines and newspapers throughout Texas, New York and South Carolina.