MEDFORD — Mirrors embody a poetic contradiction: They seem to offer a simple reflection of reality, but by doing so they imply a disruptive duality, an alternate version of things. For better or worse, mirrors tend to argue silently with the version of the world we carry around in our heads; do I really look like that today? When deployed for fictional purposes onstage or onscreen, mirrors seldom serve to reinforce our understanding of a situation; they question it.
“As You Like It” is one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies, but it’s a view of a split world: the cosmopolitan court where
illogic rules and only the wicked receive reward, and the pastoral wilds of a forest where the rightful duke, brother of the usurper, lives in exile and rules over picnics and streams as his courtiers sing songs to the elements. The belief that one lifestyle is superior to the other is thrown into confusion.
Robert Walsh’s fluid, funny production for Actors’ Shakespeare Project artfully plays up the mirroring aspects embodied in the story, while generally avoiding its tinges of pathos.
Grace Laubacher’s impressionistic set functions as both court and forest, with a pair of mirrored panels along the back wall serving as a key designator of the court, itself a dark reflection of the proper order of things. In these scenes, much of the audience sees itself reflected as backdrop. When the clown Touchstone enters with a bit of business that sends the mirrors swinging, the two cousins at center stage are doubled again, in reflection.
Of course, the focus here is on those cousins — particularly Rosalind, daughter of the exiled Duke Senior, who disguises herself as a man when she’s kicked out of court and flees to the forest of Arden. Celia, daughter of the usurping Duke Frederick, goes along with her. Played here by Joel Colodner as the bellowing ruler of a frivolous court, Frederick readies an excursion into the woods to destroy his enemies and recapture his daughter. (Colodner doubles as the good Duke Senior, the witty casting implying that we all have both noble and tyrannical impulses within us.)
There’s another pair of morally mismatched brothers in Orlando and Oliver; the former is the downtrodden younger sibling who is denied his inheritance by Oliver. After surprising the court by defeating the Duke’s champion wrestler (the fights, by Walsh, are excellent), Orlando, too, has cause to flee to Arden. But not before impressing Rosalind with his physical prowess, and receiving one of literature’s great flirtations: “Sir, you have wrestled well, and overthrown more than your enemies.”
In a wonderfully poetic gesture, Walsh stages the separate conversations in which Rosalind and Orlando each resolve to head to the woods so that they overlap, creating yet another mirroring effect.
The court is presented as a monochromatic place, literally and figuratively. Miranda Kau Giurleo’s costumes are evocative of a steampunk aesthetic — though Rosalind’s courtly outfit, all leather, black lace, and belt buckles, suggests she may be on her way to a Dresden Dolls concert — and almost everyone is in black and charcoal gray, a dour-looking group of tittering meanies.
The production finds its feet when things turn comical in Arden; references in the full text to the bittersweet side of life there, like the famously weeping deer, are downplayed or cut.
Arden is not the whimsical, fairy-strewn woodland of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It’s a confusing place, where there’s no food to be foraged and shepherds herd their flock not far from the lair of a lioness. But freshly attired in a cap, vest, and trousers, Rosalind heads into the wild and is delighted to find Orlando there, writing endless couplets of bad verse in her praise. Rather than reveal herself immediately, she offers him lessons in how to woo properly.
Brooke Hardman proves a charismatic, utterly winning Rosalind, showing great fluidity with the text and finding comic business everywhere as she bounces around the stage. Jesse Hinson’s effortful performance as Orlando leans heavily on the character’s embittered, sarcastic side, and he smirks his way through scenes with the disguised Rosalind.
While there was clearly a choice here to bypass the suggestive, gender-bending sexual tension that fuels the humor in many contemporary productions of this play, the overall effect is to make us wonder what she sees in him. After all, he’s kind of a downer.
Paula Plum and Jennie Israel are emphatically delightful as Touchstone and the exiled courtier Jaques, respectively. Plum plays Touchstone as a swaggering, randy woman, turning her critique of country life into a sideways seduction. (One gesture, at the reference to an “ill-roasted egg,” is priceless.)
Similarly, Israel creates an eminently likable version of Jaques, whose wordy philosophizing comes off more as earnest inquiry than tiresome navel-gazing. (Curiously, Jaques’s bittersweet decision to choose a different fate than her brethren is merely tossed off.) As the sometime couple Phebe and Silvius, Katie Elinoff and Jared Michael Brown also stand out, their mini-dance of mismatched desire injecting some of the sweet-and-sour yearning missing elsewhere.
This production is most comfortable in its long comic stretches, and those are a joy, even as they turn this celebration of coupling into a bit of a ladies’ night out.