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REVIEW: 'As You Like It' brilliant opening

Fair Rosalind's fingertips barely touch Orlando's, and a shudder of wondrous ecstasy runs through their bodies. Hands trace a rush of hot blood from fingertips to heart, and Rosalind and Orlando are inexplicably one. Gesture and movement lend meaning and nuance to "As You Like It," making such moments more thrilling, more generous even than the words we know so well.

"As You Like It" was a brilliant opening last weekend to the 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival season.

Shakespeare sets Duke Frederick, a controlling patriarch played here by Kevin Kenerly, against his family. Frederick is greedy for the wealth the family holds, jealous of the public regard and favor that goes to others. The Duke Senior, played by Rachel Crowl, is banished, as is the Duke's daughter, fair Rosalind (Jessica Ko), and her cousin Celia (Kate Hurster), who are all seeking haven in the forests of Arden. The forest is a magical, safe space charged with love and joy.

The set of “As You Like It” is crowded with geometric shapes in deep blues, purples and greens that ornament the floor and present as a manor’s columns in the first act. Cast members thread themselves around and about the forms, pacing with rigid obeisance, sometimes hiding or running. In the first acts, lighting is dim, sounds thunder with unknown, anxious threats, except when there’s a singular chime of beauteous love. Later these towering columns become the forests of Arden, and lighting is brighter and more hopeful.

Director Rosa Joshi admits that she’s fond of Shakespeare’s histories and of complicated games, things we know from her production of “Henry V” last season. We can see and appreciate her influence in “As You Like It.”

Remember the opening and set of “Henry V?” Humans toiled to move a mountain of gray blocks, unwinding the clock back, back, back into time as a spotlighted prologue gave the backstory. The set was spare, and those blocks served many purposes. There was a dark and ominous sense at the start of that play, and that feeling will be familiar to you at the opening of “As You Like It,” where a dismal and autocratic Duke controls all.

This season’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival offers its 15th production of “As You Like It” — and only the third not in the Elizabethan Theatre. Situating this story of befuddled, giddy love is wonderfully intimate and more human on the indoor stage, perhaps because sound and lighting are so well controlled and one feels closer to the performers.

The two leads are Jessica Ko as Rosalind and Roman Zaragoza as Orlando. They are fated to meet, to love, to be separated and then joined again. But their relationship is Byzantine when Rosalind becomes Ganymede, clothed as a youth, presenting as a man. Ko as Rosalind is helpless in the throes of Orlando’s longing, and as Orlando, Zaragoza’s simple and pure pursuit of the woman he loves is revealed as true. This is only part of the mystery and confusion of identity that Rosalind enjoys and that Ko executes with abandon and desire.

At times, Ko is so absolutely unfettered in her movements that I feared she would hurt herself, dashing her body to the floor or thrashing about in glorious desire.

This is not a pastoral “As You Like It” production, replete with sheep and goats despite the participation of the shepherd William, played by Grant Luecke. Rex Young in the role of Touchstone is a convoluted jester, a dapper man-about-town who finds satisfaction in marrying sweet Aubrey, played by Will Wilhelm. Crowl leads her banished crew as the Duke Senior and is as ready with a knife as she is with a gesture of welcome.

Michele Mais has the role of Amiens, a courtier of the banished Duke Senior. Her honeyed voice beautifully powers several of the poetic acts, lending comfort and security to the forest. Mais’ voice echoes in the Bowmer, the accompanying instrumentation weak and contrived in comparison. A better match to Mais’ voice might be to expand the music bed in complement and fill the spaces of the theater.

Rosa Joshi is a member of Seattle’s upstart crow collective along with Alice Gosti, who choreographed “Henry V,” and returns to OSF with Joshi to choreograph “As You Like It.” Gosti calls herself a “space transformer” and uses the body in layered concepts of architecture and art. You’ll particularly see her smooth, coordinated style in the first act, in big movements when the darkly dressed ensemble shifts and sways as one.

Under Joshi’s deft direction, “As You Like It” signals that hope can spring from despair, that laughter, love and kindness can heal and that the drama we see may not be as important as we imagine. Erica Sullivan in the role of the melancholic Jaques ends this OSF production with one of Shakespeare’s best-loved monologues, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” reminding us of the brevity of life and the inevitability of aging. And so, the forest of Arden resounds with laughter and joy if only for a time.

“As You Like It” opened on International Women’s Day, when the world celebrates female achievement, confidence and vitality. In its own inimitable way, OSF celebrated that day with a play that has a nearly all female creative team.

“As You Like It” is about two hours and 30 minutes long and runs in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 26. The show is a delight for all ages with just the right kind of bawdy innuendo to bring forth a giggle. There will be a sign-interpreted performance May 25. For tickets and more information, see OSFAshland.org or call the box office at 800-219-8161.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Rex Young (Touchstone) and Will Wilhelm (Aubrey) in "As You Like It" at the Angus Bowmer Theatre. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival