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'As You Like It' romances the audience with comedy

Long seen as one of Shakespeare's happiest comedies, "As You Like It" has been getting the minor-key treatment lately. Directors of some recent productions seem to have taken their cues from the melancholy Jacques and the air of oppression around the court of the usurping Duke Frederick.

Not this time. Jessica Thebus, who directed the ebullient production that opened Sunday night on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor stage, has draped the romantic comedy in the tropes of an upbeat fairy tale. The first sign of this is a highly theatrical bit of prologue when four actors appear as graces, radiant beings who function as the opposite of the furies.

Reappearing at key moments, they represent the Greek god of marriage, Hymen. They move the hands of a gigantic wheel that dominates the stage, raising and lowering the sun and moon. They represent the four seasons and perhaps suggest the slow turning of Fortune's wheel.

An agitated Orlando (the charming Wayne T. Carr) lists the grievances he bears against his mean elder brother, Oliver (Kenajuan Bentley), to old Adam (Doug Rowe), the faithful family servant. The wrestling moves the resourceful Orlando puts on Oliver prefigure his victory in a slam-bang set piece, his match against Charles (Kimberly Scott), the bone-crusher sponsored by Duke Frederick (an imperious Michael J. Hume), who has stolen the dukedom of his brother, Duke Senior.

The match takes place in front of a large hanging of the image of a lion, the emblem with which Duke Frederick has replaced the hart or stag of the deposed Duke Senior. For the match, the lion's face turns into a Hellmouth, the entrance to the underworld in medieval passion plays.

Orlando's valor does not go unobserved. Watching his victory are the smitten Rosalind (Erica Sullivan), Duke Senior's daughter, and her cousin Celia (Christine Albright). The girls seem more like sisters than cousins, and when Duke Frederick banishes Rosalind, Celia joins her on her journey into the Forest of Arden on a quest for identity, and the two are joined by the clown Touchstone (a delightfully vacant Peter Frechette).

Bathed in Jane Cox's moody lights, the forest is a scary place, and the girls start at the slightest sound. But this is also a welcoming forest, and goodwill prevails as Duke Senior and his band lounge about like Robin Hood minus the robbing. They eat and drink and philosophize on forest life versus the court as Shakespeare sets up the pastoral satire.

Even Jacques' seven-ages-of-man speech eschews the usual nihilistic chill, delivered by a jaunty Kathryn Meisle with something like detached amusement. Meisle's performance is top-notch, but it doesn't add the dark counterpoint we've come to expect in the role.

Shakespeare's green worlds are places of transformation, and Sullivan is excellent as Rosalind. Disguised as the youth Ganymede, she has Oliver court her as practice for courting his true love, whom he believes is back at court. As cross-dressed Rosalind explores her femininity, Sullivan adds strength and intelligence to her vulnerability. When Oliver realizes he's attracted to Rosalind, whom he thinks is Ganymede, he pulls back with a start.

The production's period fantasy design seems to have sprung from the fairy tale world of the English artist Arthur Rackham. We almost expect Rosalind in hose and doublet to confront a giant. Actors dressed as sheep and goats enter with the rustics and chew their cuds. Even the scene in which Orlando saves his sleeping brother from a snake and a lion is an almost dream-like dance.

Instead of trees for Orlando to hang his love poems on, thickets of brush grow on either side of the stage. His poems drop from above, outrageously long scrolls testifying to his obsession with Rosalind.

With all the love going around (Rosalind must have been a carrier), even the rustics fall in line. Kjerstine Rose Anderson's scruffy Audrey may be dumb as her goats, but she's willing to wed. Alejandra Escalante's hilarious Phoebe gets a taste of her own medicine when she's rejected by "Ganymede," but she, too, puts aside her scorn for the hapless Silvius.

The Chicago-based Thebus usually directs new plays, but she's seized the chance here to create a highly theatrical take on one of Shakespeare's best-loved comedies on the OSF's bulliest of pulpits. This is the one you take out-of-town visitors to see.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Touchstone (Peter Frechette) entertains Rosalind (Erica Sullivan), left, and Celia (Christine Albright) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of 'As You Like It.' - Photo courtesy of T. Charles Erickson