Wednesday, July 3, 2024


By Ruth Ross

Forced to postpone Opening Night of their summer outdoor stage production due to weather conditions, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey performed As You Like It, the Bard’s long, convoluted tale featuring two sets of warring brothers, good folk being exiled to a forest, and a couple struggling to find true love that contains some of Shakespeare's most poetical and insightful writing and one of the best roles for a woman. (Above: the final wedding scene)

The romantic/pastoral comedy features some of Shakespeare’s tried (and often tired) formulae: internecine warfare (a good Duke usurped and exiled by an evil younger brother; a noble younger brother persecuted by his older sibling and forced to flee to protect his own safety); two women who to seek refuge in a forest—one disguised as a boy; several instances of love at first sight affecting noble folk as well as dimwitted shepherds; servants who accompany their noble masters/mistresses; and the melancholic musings of a dour courtier.

For the most part, the production succeeds with crisp acting, luscious costumes designed by Paul Canada, original music by Alexander Sovronsky and lovely scenic design by Gabby Trice that evokes both ducal palace and the Forest of Arden. However, while it gets the romance right, the comedy is often lacking.

Romantically speaking, in the roles of Rosalind and Orlando, respectively, both STNJ veteran Billie Wyatt and newbie Jose Gamo sparkle. Charming and sympathetic as a young noblewoman whose father has been deposed and exiled, Wyatt is delightful in the disguise as Ganymede, especially when she tutors the lovesick Orlando on how to woo his lady love—herself! There’s enough femininity peeking out from her male disguise to let the audience feel it is in on the joke! Gamos adorably matches Wyatt’s performance, particularly when he reads his goofy love poems aloud and attempts to woo according to Ganymede’s directions. His youthful litheness and energy are evident as he moves—no, leaps—around the stage.

My reservations about the production lie, I think, with the performances elicited by Jemma Alix Levy, an experienced director of Shakespeare making her debut with this troupe. For one thing, I expected more humor from Matthew Radford Davies as Touchstone (right), the usurping duke’s court fool, who accompanies Rosalind and her cousin Celia into the forest and falls head over heels for the country maid Audrey, played with appropriate dimwittedness by Jennifer Joplin. Despite his harlequin patterned vest and hat with huge, colorful feathers to mark him as a comic foil/fool, his “clowning” didn’t elicit much laughter. Indeed, his wooing of Audrey should be played more broadly in contrast to the mannered, artificial relationship between Orlando and Rosalind/Ganymede.

Similar comedy should come from the disconnect between the young folks’ optimistic love and the dour, dyspeptic observations of Jaques, a courtier of the banished Duke now residing in the forest. Through his long tenure with STNJ, we have come to expect outstanding work from Clark Carmichael. Oh, his dour facial expressions convey his character’s discontent with the world (he is a Debbie Downer!), but his crab-like demeanor and acerbic speech needs to be more pronounced to be amusing—especially during the “All the world’s a stage” speech.

Finally, the role of Sir Oliver Martext, the lisping minister Orlando has found to marry him and Ganymede/Rosalind in the forest, has been edited down to a mere brief appearance sans any dialogue that would be a cause for laughter.

The rest of the company does yeoman’s’ duty, each playing multiple roles. Jeffrey M. Bender mines the wrestler Charles’ role for the comedy he’s well-known for; he matches the athlete’s belligerence with a solemn equanimity as the exiled Duke Senior. Christian Frost’s portrayal of Oliver, elder brother of Orlando, is menacing and dangerous; as William, the rustic lover, he’s simplicity personified. Emily S. Chang beautifully performs Shakespeare’s lyrics set to Sovronsky’s music bringing them to life before our eyes! One performance, that of Celia by Brianna Martinez (below, with Wyatt), bears notice. The role is rather thankless; it involves a great deal of standing around in support of her cousin Rosaline, but Martinez adorably makes it her own.

It has occurred to me that As You Like It may not be Shakespeare’s greatest—or funniest—comedy. Court jesters and crabby old men aren’t as funny to modern audiences as are rustic actors putting on a play in the forest to celebrate a wedding (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or two sets of twins confusing everyone around them—even the audience (A Comedy of Errors).

That said, this production of As You Like It has a lot to recommend it: talented actors, beautiful scenery and costumes, music, agile youths leaping around the stage and, most of all, the perfect setting for this pastoral romance. It will lift your spirits, restore your faith in happiness gained through love, and enable you to leave the STNJ outdoor amphitheater with a smile on your face.

As You Like It will be performed at the outdoor stage of St. Elizabeth University, off Madison Avenue in Convent Station through July 14. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit online.