It's said that good casting accounts for about 90 percent of successful directing, and Joseph Discher's current production of Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It (1599), presented by TheatreWorks at Rock Ledge Ranch, does much to prove the point. In it, Patrick Toon as Jaques and Mandy Olsen as Rosalind lead an uneven ensemble and keep Discher's routine and orderly staging alive.
Justly favored among Shakespeare's plays for its mix of wit and wisdom on love, As You Like It is not without an artful measure of theorizing. To be sure, all is aimed at Rosalind's complex recipe for truth in matters of the heart, but "fortune" and distributive justice also get their due. Moreover, a kind of stealth stoicism pervades and enriches the play, offsetting Shakespeare's cloying, happy ending. Thus As You Like It is both a crowd- and curmudgeon-pleaser at once.
In Act 1, Duke Frederick (Tom Paradise) has wrested from his unsuspecting brother Duke Senior a lively court and expansive domain, and after banishing him, must now govern it. He paranoically condemns to forest exile anyone in sight, and Rosalind, the banished Duke's daughter, gets caught in the sweep. To his outrage, Frederick's own daughter Celia (Rebekah Fernandez) takes to the woods with Rosalind, and jester Touchstone (Andy Sturt) tags along to make three.
Similar bad luck has struck Orlando (Shannon Michael Wamser), the object of Rosalind's affections. Orlando is the victim of an evil, grasping brother, Oliver (nicely played by Jason Lythgoe); he leaves for the forest where he'll soon run into Rosalind again.
To ward off danger and preserve her sense of virtue in the forest, Rosalind disguises herself as a boy named Ganymede, and in an inspired moment uses it as a ploy to test and tutor Orlando on love. So capable is she, Rosalind as Ganymede takes it upon herself to counsel others caught in romantic throes, namely shepherdess Phoebe (Mackenzie Paulsen) and her bumpkin suitor Silvius (Omid Dastan Harrison).
Shakespeare gives her an almost despotic hand in this, as he's done in other plays, most notably Merchant of Venice: He empowers and fortifies his heroines via their role-playing as men. As such, Rosalind is the most elaborate and appealing, and Olsen captures and conveys all her facets with sustained energy and clarity.
Among the cheerful groups traipsing through the forest is melancholy and reluctant Jaques, an emeritus courtier. Yet "his sullen fits are full of matter" and provide a welcome contrast to the giddy enslavement of Rosalind in love. During our visit, Toon gave the best performance of the evening, the most poised, polished, and comfortable to watch; he lent a subtle lustre to "all the world's a stage," tinged with sympathy and sorrow.
As far as setting goes, Scott Aronow's court of Act 1 looks merely thrown together, something more Turkish than French, with fabric draped indiscriminately over the geometric framing. (Is this Othello?) And the forest of Arden resembles more of a Home Depot raw-lumber apparatus than tangle of limbs and branches. Thankfully, costumes — and the aforementioned actors — do better than sets at Rock Ledge to suggest the change from court to country.