In the final moments of Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's transcendent production of William Shakespeare's As You Like It, with tears in my eyes as the cast sang Alex Bechtel's original composition "A Little Life," I thought, "This is the epitome of great Shakespeare."
I had to let that thought sit for a day, because sometimes an extreme feeling like that — overwhelmingly positive or crushingly negative — fades when the moment passes. This one didn't.
Pfeiffer gets it
Director Matt Pfeiffer, hot off another busy Philadelphia season (including a charming Midsummer Night's Dream at the Arden), recognizes that, while As You Like It can coast on broad humor and pratfalls, it embodies a mature thoughtfulness that carries us beyond the ending's four marriages. It's simultaneously a romantic adventure about new love and a meditation on regret and reconciliation. Its characters grow, and grow up. Incredibly, the play's comedy shines through when played more seriously.
Lesser productions treat the opening scenes as mere exposition, but here they define the play. Esau Pritchett's Duke Frederick, who usurped his brother Senior (also played by Pritchett), is vain, paranoid, and genuinely dangerous. His temper sends daughter Celia (Stella Baker) and Senior's daughter Rosalind (Marnie Schulenburg) fleeing to the forest of Arden with their fool Touchstone (Dan Hodge), and cause Charles (Mike Rossmy) to banish his brother Orlando (Zach Robidas). Their desperation turns to wonder, making their forest adventures truly magical.
Music and light enhance this production. Bechtel's arrangements, played and sung live by the cast (particularly Senior's commune-in-exile, musically led by Alexander Sovronsky's Amiens) soulfully support and enhance Shakespeare's poetry. Brian Sidney Bembridge's open set — not at all compromised by also serving The Three Musketeers, playing in repertory — allows Masha Tsimring to define the forest with whimsical hanging lamps. Devon Painter's fanciful costumes, a timeless peasant chic, are led by Touchstone's witty black-and-white vertically bisected suit.
Amid all the gently comical lovers' actions, this version's thoughtful tone is defined by Ian Merrill Peakes's masterful Jaques, the melancholic misanthrope who, in lesser productions, can seem like he's wandered into the wrong play. Shakespeare provides some of his most memorable lines and speeches, and Peakes delivers them with a soulful sincerity that preserves the character's humor but takes the play to a seldom-achieved higher level.
Such is the confidence in Pfeiffer's production that even broad humor — like Touchstone's marijuana-infused repartee with shepherd Corin (Paul Kiernan) — rings true. No lines are wasted, no characters overlooked. All the storylines are made clear and important: not only the diverse romances, but the last-act redeeming realizations set up by that carefully crafted beginning.
Even more impressive is what such a fine cast can do with excellent material. The same actors who spin silk from a sow's ear in Ken Ludwig's leaden Three Musketeers adaptation soar with a Shakespeare script brimming with lovely moments and sparkling lines.
I've seen many stagings of As You Like It and never tire of its charms, but I would not have predicted I would feel so moved, enlightened, and fulfilled after dozens of enjoyable productions over decades of playgoing. The biggest irony is that this enchanting production will disappear after only four more performances.