Shakespeare's plays were originally performed in an outdoor theater, ostentatiously named the Globe, crammed with as many as 3,000 spectators. A portion of that most famous theater has been recreated in the Masquer Theatre for the University of Montana School of Theater and Dance's production of As You Like It, where it is staged in an intimate space before fewer than 200 people.
Alessia Carpoca's set design is faithful to the tradition of Shakespeare's day, utilizing a stage devoid of fancy backdrops and props that asks the audience to not only suspend disbelief, but also actively imagine a Duke's court and the Forest of Arden. This kind of pure theater demands much of its cast and crew. In this production, directed by John Kenneth DeBoer, small gestures are cleverly used to establish settings. Apples scattered on the ground reveal that we are in an orchard (a few potatoes get thrown around as well), and the actors must do quick changes in and out of renaissance-inspired costumes adapted for the woodland setting. There are leafy doublets and camouflage breeches. Also true to Elizabethan theater, there are a distressing number of speaking roles for the number of actors on hand. Half the cast plays more than one part and one actress plays four.
An encapsulation of how well a bare stage can work comes in a moment of quiet pathos delivered by the melancholy Jaques, played by Tsiambwom Akuchu not as a pure depressive so much as a bit of a trickster. After the "all the world's a stage" soliloquy, Akuchu remains alone on stage huddled against a pillar. We hear rain falling and he sings dolefully, "This life is most jolly." A sound effect, a subtle lighting change, and an actor. The audience sees a man in the middle of a wood shivering under dripping boughs, trying to cheer himself and keep dry.
But, Jaques aside, As You Like It is a rush of merriment, a variety show consisting of fast-paced and mostly brief scenes. Cupid's first shafts are shot during a wrestling match of multiple falls at the evil Duke Frederick's court. Stage fighting of any kind is tricky and can easily look hokey, but Hudson Therriault's Orlando grapples Will Copeland's Charles the Wrestler athletically. On the night I watched the play, an older gent a row ahead exclaimed rather too loudly to his wife after the second throw, "That's pretty realistic, isn't it?"
Eventually everybody flees or pursues someone into the Forest of Arden. And in Arden we follow a grab bag of entwined plots. Duke Senior and his merry band hunt deer and sing. As You Like It is a musical comedy and some of the songs are played for laughs while some, especially the final number by Saige Perchy, are performed earnestly.
A comedic highlight is provided by lanky Matt McDaniel's Touchstone. He cavorts and flings himself about recklessly. If you're afraid people tend to take Shakespeare too seriously, you may enjoy the I've-got-a-boner-in-my-tights bit of stage business that happens in his scene.
This play of "strange capers" is held together by the main romantic comedy plot between the poem-writing Orlando and his hose-wearing Rosalind, played by Natasha Conti (partially fulfilling her Master of Fine Arts degree with this role). Conti admirably struts and frets her way through the largest female role in the Shakespeare canon. Her Rosalind is giddily in love, but still a take-charge proto-feminist. She's also the center of all the gender-bending fun and complexity that makes this farce so rewarding to watch.
As You Like It continues at the Masquer Theatre Thu., Oct. 19–Sat., Oct. 21, at 7:30 PM, with a Sun., Oct. 22 matinee at 2 PM. $16/$14 students and seniors/$10 for 12 years and under.