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Theater Review:

"AS YOU LIKE IT," Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier

BY LUCIA MAURO

There’s a bright and buoyant quality to director David H. Bell’s theatrical vision. Yet, in his effort to transport to the stage a cinematic expanse of brilliant colors and textures, he does not neglect to subtly weave in an enigmatic darkness and longing of the soul. His balanced, all-encompassing perspective explodes with breathtaking ardor in his production of "As You Like It" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.

Audiences may find it hard to resist being seduced by Bell’s festive and lavish visual imprimatur. But he does more than paint pretty stage pictures. The director, often associated with musical theater, makes the design an integral force in his sonorous stagings – a force that gently advances the plot and manages to evoke a quiet symbolism within the intense realism.

Bell has set Shakespeare’s famous yin-and-yang comedy in Catherine the Great’s Russia – making the Duke Senior’s banishment to the Forest of Arden a frigid Siberian wasteland, where baser human urges battle against the preservation of civility. I had the privilege of viewing "As You Like It" from above in the center section of the dress circle.

This gave me a breathtaking perspective of the design team’s revelatory yet unobtrusive magic: scenic designer James Leonard Joy’s metallic, marbleized patches of leaves reflected against imposing copper gates and, later, the rugged brown wilderness overseen by an off-center moon, lit with a flickering lantern-like glow by Howard Werner; Mariann Verheyen’s luxurious brocade and fur-trimmed Russian/Mongolian costumes; Brian Kettler’s powerfully understated sound design; and Henry Marsh’s original music so heartwrenchingly ethereal, it seemed to float down from the heavens.

A woman next to me spent a good part of the show gasping – and occasionally sobbing – at the sheer beauty of this production bathed in dramatic splashes of beet-red and gold-spun thread. Dare I admit, her awestruck tears were contagious.

Far from skin deep, Bell’s richly detailed design sense and desire to incorporate full musical scores and rousing physicality into his stagings do not produce sensory overload. Instead they are capable of unveiling the endless relevance of Shakespeare’s words. His cast immediately speaks the Bard’s words so clearly and truthfully, the ear is never in need of re-tuning. Bell has a refreshing way of making Shakespeare "accessible" (I know, it’s a dreaded word in this business) without sacrificing the depth or poignancy of the text. Plus the director manages to make judicious cuts that ultimately serve the play well and do not intimidate audiences new to Elizabethan speech.

I called "As You Like It" a yin-and-yang play because it is rooted in perfectly parallel dualities: male/female; good/evil; heart/head; barbarism/cultured behavior. Most of the characters have a counterpart, and the work impeccably wraps up with these opposites joining forces to craft complete human beings.

Four couples frame "As You Like It": leads Orlando and Rosalind; Oliver and Celia; Silvius and Phebe; and Touchstone and Audrey – all archetypes of varied human urges. On a more literal level, the plot is set into motion when Duke Frederick (who has banished his brother to the Forest of Arden) drives away Orlando, youngest son to the Duke’s enemy Sir Rowland de Boys, even after Orlando proves his valor in a royal wrestling match. During the match, Rosalind – daughter to the exiled Duke – falls in love with Orlando. Her most loyal confidante is Celia, Duke Frederick’s daughter. When Frederick proceeds to banish Rosalind, too, Celia and their court jester, Touchstone, run away to Arden.

Rosalind disguises herself as a boy and, along the way, runs into Orlando to whom she remains disguised and proceeds to coach in the proper ways of winning a lady. In another part of the forest, the noble Duke Senior – joined by his faithful followers and melancholic lord Jaques – welcomes Orlando to his open-air court, where civility and generosity are still observed.

Complexities arise when a flighty shepherd girl Phebe (pursued by the lovesick Silvius) falls for the incognito Rosalind (now called Ganymede); and Touchstone lusts for the shepherdess Audrey, yet agrees to make their union respectable. In addition, Celia and Orlando’s once-vengeful brother Oliver find true love.

One of Shakespeare’s most fully realized comedies, "As You Like It" is no mere idyllic pastoral. Most of the characters are driven by complex motivations and are meticulously inter-connected. And Jaques, one of the Bard’s most intriguing creations, serves as an aching reminder of one’s need to marry emotions with intellect. It’s a moving tale of desire, contemplation and reconciliation.

And Bell has assembled an equally multidimensional cast: Elizabeth Laidlaw merges regality and vulnerability as Rosalind; Timothy Gregory transcends Orlando’s swooning romanticism to display a tormented soul; Kate Fry remains steadfast and tender as Celia; Mark L. Montgomery does not restrict Oliver to a darting-eyed villain; Saxon Palmer gives Touchstone a charmingly acerbic edge; Patrick Clear’s Duke Senior evokes a mystical calm; Roger Mueller brings ferocity and innocence to his dual roles of Duke Frederick and the shepherd Corin; Ian Brennan makes Silvius’ pinings very real and sincere; and James Harms endows Oliver’s aged servant Adam with a staunch immovability.

But the star of the show is Greg Vinkler as the inimitable Jaques, who delivers the famous "All the world’s a stage" speech with such inevitability, it will prompt viewers to seriously come to terms with their own mortality. Vinkler is a Chicago treasure – a true actor capable of seamlessly merging his fibers with those of his characters.

Watching "As You Like It" reminded me of those intricately painted Russian doll canisters – the ones that contain smaller dolls within larger dolls. Bell has dissected Shakespeare’s every word, phrase and gesture to reveal the most basic seed of human truth.•

"As You Like It" runs through March 9 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand. Tickets: $40-$52. Call 312-595-5600 or log onto www.chicagoshakes.com.

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