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'As You Like It' puts audiences under a spell in Asolo Conservatory production

This Shakespeare-in-the-park show at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens shows a younger, charmingly unrefined side of the Bard.

Jillian Cicalese, Brian Ritchie and Bonita Jackson act in "As You Like It." Photo by John Revisky
Jillian Cicalese, Brian Ritchie and Bonita Jackson act in "As You Like It." Photo by John Revisky
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Shakespeare’s  “As You Like It” is a meditation on outcasts and exiles. These refugees find refuge in the magic forest of Arden. This FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training production uses Marie Selby Botanical Gardens as a stand-in.

The play is a grab-bag of Shakespearean tropes. The plot is a long and winding road. Here’s a shortcut …

The jealous usurper Duke Frederick (Jonathan Grunert) banishes his older brother, Duke Senior (Jonathan Grunert, again), and his loyalists. The good guys flee, and create a kind of hippy commune in the Arden. The forest quickly gets crowded. The brave Orlando (Michael Judah) also gets on the peevish Duke’s naughty list, and gets banished too. Before long, he’s joined by his true love, Rosalind (Bonita Jackson), the good Duke’s daughter. Her cousin Celia (Jillian Cicalese) joins her. (She’s the bad Duke’s daughter.)

Orlando fills the forest with love notes to Rosalind. She disguises herself as a man, and schools him on how to treat a lady. Along with the doubling and gender-bending, there’s deep thought and low comedy. Touchstone (Brian Ritchie) the manic fool, and Jacques (Creg Sclavi) the depressed philosopher, spice things up with soliloquies and one-liners. Long story short? Nobody dies, and the usurper repents. The play ends with one big marriage ceremony.

Director Jonathan Epstein makes the Bard’s dialogue sound like speech. He illuminates the minds behind the words with the starts and stops of everyday conversation. He also wrings every last drop of creative possibility out of the outdoor setting. Kudos also for Epstein’s deft fight choreography, especially in the wrestling scene.

The actors all play multiple parts. Here are some standouts:

Bonita Jackson plays Rosalind in
Bonita Jackson plays Rosalind in "As You Like It." Photo by John Revisky

The versatile Grunert is excellent as the dualistic Dukes. He portrays both the good guy and the bad guy — two great performances for the price of one. Judah’s Orlando is the perfect diamond in the rough. A noble fellow, down on his luck. He’s stoic and uncomplaining — up to a point. Bonita Jackson shines as the cross-dressing, impish Rosalind. She shifts effortlessly between accents and attitudes when she teases Orlando up and down the forest.

Cicalese’s Celia is touching when love destroys her self-possession. She falls head-over-heels for Oliver (Joe Ferrarelli), Orlando’s spiteful brother, who’s seeking him out in the wild wood. Ferrarelli deftly evokes the pigheaded Oliver, who irrationally sees his good-hearted brother as competition. (He has a change of heart, thanks to his brother’s love and a convenient lioness.) Creg Sclavi is suitably brooding as Jacques, the downbeat, Shakespearean equivalent of Eeyore. His character delivers two of the play’s timeless speeches: “The Seven Ages of Man” and “All the World is a Stage.” On a lighter note, Sclavi and Bitler are hilarious as two WWF-style wrestling heels. Ritchie’s jittery, jive-talking Touchstone is always a comic crowd-pleaser. Alex Pelletier is equal funny in the drag role of Audrey, a simple-minded shepherd girl who lusts for that fool.

Bonita Jackson and Michael Judah play soulmates in
Bonita Jackson and Michael Judah play soulmates in "As You Like It." Photo by John Revisky

Epstein and the creative team make the world of Selby Gardens their stage. And make the most of it, with a theater-in-the-round approach. (Aside from a few helicopters, the noise pollution wasn’t too bad.) With a few exceptions, the actors make themselves heard. While the play’s set in France, Sofia Gonzales’ costumes hint at an alternate reality south of the Mason-Dixon line. Sclavi’s Jacques seems dressed in a Confederate greatcoat stripped of insignia. The hoop skirts on the pre-exiled Rosalind and Celia billow like parachutes — a hilarious hint at their precarious privilege.

Chris McVicker’s earthly lighting playfully echoes the heavenly illumination of sun and moon. The roars and rumbles of Alex Pinchin’s sound design hints of weird denizens of earth and air. Eliza Ladd’s movement work dances around the intoxication of Shakespeare’s words. While there’s no credited music director, the actors are always breaking out in song. This play is dense with some of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, including “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” and “Under the Greenwood Tree.” The conservatory cast has fun with it — and throw in a few cheeky anachronisms for good measure.

Michael Judah, Bonita Jackson, Jillian Cicalese and Brian Ritchie act in
Michael Judah, Bonita Jackson, Jillian Cicalese and Brian Ritchie act in "As You Like It." Photo by John Revisky

There’s a lot to like in “As You Like It.” The first act fills you with melancholy at the world’s arbitrary cruelty. The powerful Duke Frederick abuses the powerless because he can. Those innocents run for their lives because they must. After all that heavy build up, the second act feels like a grab bag of mad Elizabethan comedy sketches. It all serves the plot, yes. But it’s ultimately all about folks fooling around in the forest.

But fear not the Great God Logic.

There’s rough magic in “As You Like It.” Shakespeare refined its themes in later comedies like “Twelfth Night” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” This early play is unrefined, and that’s secret of its charm. This is a young man’s fancy, not an old man’s dream. Like Orlando, Shakespeare still has much to learn. But his early steps in the enchanted forests of his imagination will fill you with a sense of wonder.




Marty Fugate

Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.

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