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Dukes of Hazard

As You Like It
Bards of a Feather: James Newcomb (left), Suzanne Irving and Rebecca Clark escape to the forest in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's adaptation of 'As You Like It,' playing through August 31.

Photo by Shmuel Thaler

Children of the powerful find laughs, intrigue and passion in Shakespeare's magic forest

By Sarah Phelan

YOU'D BE HARD-PRESSED to find a better setting for As You Like It, which opened Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 1997 season in UCSC's Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, not just because it's an absolutely gorgeous spot for an outdoor theatre, but also because it mirrors this romantic comedy at a deeper and more symbolic level. In the play, the cast rapidly migrates from the urbane court to the wild and fantastical forest, and in Santa Cruz, audiences have only to travel a stone's throw from downtown to reach this magical location, ringed by redwoods and steeped in wood-nymph mystique.

Small distances for sure, but ones that offer major contrasts. And it's the external contrasts between cultivated city and untamed forest that represent the constant inner struggle between our civilized and savage selves.

It's not hard to decipher which side Shakespeare is backing in this war between head and heart. As the title of this play suggests, As You Like It is all about following your passion. If that ain't enough to clue you in, then how about the so-called "civilized court"? Ruled by the handsome mega-bad guy Duke Frederick (Howard Swain) and inhabited by men who wrestle like bears to maintain power, it clearly represents barbarism at its worst. If this is civilized brotherhood, then forget it!

Sisters, on the other hand (well, cousins, actually), seem to have the sticking-together thang down to a science. When Rosalind (Suzanne Irving) gets banished by the evil Duke, his daughter Celia (Rebecca Clark) follows, thereby risking the loss of fame and fortune. (Guess Shakespeare had already figured out that men were from Mars and women from Venus 400 years ago.)

In any event, the girls, along with Touchstone the Clown (James Newcomb), trip off into the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind's goody-two-shoes father, Duke Senior (Brad Myers), is hanging out in exile. And though the wild, wild woods are not without their natural hazards--ferocious lions being a good case in point--extraordinary things do take place on the forest's ferny floors, and lives are changed for the better--forever.

By setting As You Like It in the Dust Bowl '30s, director Tim Ocel successfully colors in the somewhat melancholy theme of displacement that runs throughout this otherwise comical piece. His choice allows for inspired costume design--in a hundred shades of brown--plus amusing musical interludes and excellent choreography, all held together by a versatile set and great use of the surrounding area.

But despite the time switch, the basic storyline remains the same. Rosalind, daughter of the banished ruling duke, falls in love with Orlando, the youngest son of a noble family. But when they meet in the charmed Forest of Arden, Rosalind can't act on her attraction because she's disguised as a man, all the better to elude her wicked uncle, Duke Frederick. Many close encounters of the cross-dressing kind later--and a zillion subplots in between--Rosalind and Orlando realize that they are a perfect match, and all live happily ever after.

If old el Bardo were alive today, his editor would never let him get away with such cumbersome plots--this one conveniently resolved in the last moments through a miraculous conversion that doesn't even happen centerstage. But lame endings notwithstanding, you have to give the guy the prize for poetic writing and characterizations that reflect a profound understanding of the human condition.

In particular, his fools always seem to glean the lion's share of witty lines, deep insights and contemplative moments. Touchstone the Clown is no exception, especially as portrayed by the always outstanding James Newcomb, who can do more things with straw boaters, golf clubs and badminton shuttles than should be humanly possible.

Sharon Lockwood is suitably lively and coarse as Audrey the country wench. Suzanne Irving (Rosalind) and Leith M. Burke (Orlando) create convincing chemistry together, and Burke is particularly impressive when paired with Ian Bedford (Charles)--great accent and wrestling outfit--for a magnetic fight. Coco Medvitz (Phebe) stands out in her role as the saucily reluctant shepherdess bride. And Richard Farrell (Jaques) conducts himself with drunken dignity throughout.

So take a picnic, a blanket and a lawnchair, and prepare to enjoy the best of this summer's wine.

As You Like It runs through Aug. 31. For times and dates check out our stage listings. Tickets are available at all BASS outlets, by mail or at the Performing Arts Ticket office. For ticket info, call 459-2159.

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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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