The title invites the wordplay, so I’ll succumb to the temptation right off the bat: there’s a great deal to like in the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of As You Like It. The story, of course, is one of Shakespeare’s most fun (this is the one in which Rosalind cross-dresses as a man to flee into the forest to escape the harsh punishment of the Duke and then has her lover Orlando woo her (as a man) as she pretends to be herself, not to be confused with the one in which the four lovers flee into the forest in order to escape the harsh punishment of the King (Midsummer) or the one in which….oh, never mind), combining many levels of comedy (from physical comedy and slapstick to subtle wordplay) with some of Shakespeare’s deepest philosophizing on what it is to be human (from Jaques’s seven stages of man speech to the ecologically mindful homage to the creatures of the forest to the thematic opposition of civilization to nature). And the Public has a lot of fun with it. The play begins rather darkly, with Orlando’s brother Oliver arranging to have him killed in a wrestling match, and Rosalind’s uncle banishing her from court, but even these scenes — set ominously against a wall of closed doors that serve as an architectural metaphor for the intrigue and politics that mark court life — have their moments of lightness, in particular in the first meeting between Celia (Julia Coffey), Rosalind (Gretchen Egolf), and Rosalind’s romantic sparring partner Orlando (played with enormous charm by Christian Conn). Once the scene shifts into the forest, the tone of the play lightens up considerably, and the production follows suit, with cream-toned costumes and a sunny, warm lighting design contributing to a playful, relaxed feeling.
From the moment the play begins it feels fresh and energetic, and (not necessarily a given for a Shakespeare comedy) it’s also got moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. Douglas Harmsen, as the fool Touchstone, does much of the comic heavy lifting, but there’s also a lovely brief slapstick turn by Noble Shropshire as Sir Oliver Mar-Text, and Egolf wields the wit of Rosalind’s lines with rapier precision. The storytelling is crystal clear, and if you’re the type who avoids Shakespeare because you find you often can’t understand the words, there are no worries on that front here: the delivery of the text is uniformly excellent. And I must not forget to mention the music (composed by Michael Moricz) — the songs are terrific, sung well by a kind of barbershop quartet of male voices, and there’s even a lively singalong moment to satisfy your audience participation jones.
I had a few small quibbles with the production. For one thing, although the costumes are quite beautiful, the shift from dark to light with the shift from court to forest felt a bit heavy-handed. Moreover, I’m still puzzling over why the characters wear (what looks to my admittedly non-expertise eye to be) Edwardian clothing. My best guess is that designer Gabriel Barry is piggybacking on our presumed familiarity with Downton Abbey as a cultural reference point for the world of Dukes and courts, but there’s nothing in the production that helps us understand what (otherwise) a visual reference to that particular era opens up in the play’s interpretation. And then, once we’re in that era: what’s with the dude in the Louis XIV get-up at the end of the play? (Is there a joke I’m not getting?)
Speaking of interpretation, my other small quibble with the production is that it misses an opportunity for some great fun in not allowing Conn, as Orlando, to show a hint of suspicion that Ganymede is really Rosalind. I think Shakespeare’s text has enough ambiguity on this point to allow for some clever nonverbal play on Orlando’s part, and it would certainly give him a bit more to do as the play zooms towards the inevitable marital resolution.
But those are, as I say, quibbles, and small ones at that, about what is otherwise an extremely likeable, fresh, and lively production.