Shakespeare never wrote a better comedy than As You Like It. Every note on the laugh scale is piped to perfection. Romantic conflicts? None more entertaining. Cross-dressed lover? The smartest of them all. Motley fool? The best of the lot.
The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater (TRIST) is putting all that on display, adapted and directed by Bob Colonna into two fun-packed hours, in free performances through June 17. Since the setting is the Forest of Arden, it's being presented outdoors at the Roger Williams National Memorial (282 North Main Street, Providence).
This production opens furiously, signaling the high energy to come. Two brothers are having a heated argument that soon becomes physical. Elder brother Oliver (Ryan Hanley) had been instructed by their deceased father to see that younger brother Orlando (Patrick Cullen) is educated and otherwise provided for. Annoyed at his angry objection, Oliver arranges for a wrestler to hurt him badly — "I would as lief you break his neck as his finger" — in upcoming public competition. (Don't worry. His neck remains intact.)
Meanwhile, the duchy of the rightful Duke Ferdinand (Mishell Lilly) has been usurped by the evil Duchess Fredericka (Charlotte Markey). (Easy there, Shakespeare scholars: the names have been changed to protect the available cast members.) Although Rosalind (Kristina Drager) is the daughter of the banished duke, she has been allowed to stay at court because her best friend, Celia (Lydea Irwin), is the evil duchess's daughter.
Soon both young women find themselves in the Forest of Arden, since the duchess has grown furious at the common folk's sympathy with Rosalind. To travel safely, Rosalind dresses as a young man and they pretend that Celia is his sister. (A wonderful touch is having Irwin carry around a silver clutch purse, in a forest or not, since she is, after all, a spoiled rich girl.)
Orlando has already fallen in love with Rosalind at first sight. She isn't averse to the notion, but being a strong, independent-minded woman she has more fun with the opportunity than he does. Drager's best scene as Rosalind is when she is making fun of Orlando; in her male persona she pretends she will cure him of love for Rosalind if he will daily woo "him" as her. This recurring interplay is one of the things that raises the comedy above Shakespeare's other faraces, though Orlando fails to recognize the sweetheart merely because her long hair is under a cap. Maybe Elizabethan lovers had some kind of follicle fetish.
Mark Carter is terrific as Touchstone, deftly wielding the fool's rapier wit on such occasions as explaining to the young women how he can swear on his honor whether or not he has any. Carter extends the clowning around with physical humor that draws audience applause when he elaborates on the various ways he might murder someone. Director Colonna plays Jaques, but though the character is spoken of as "Melancholy Jaques," he isn't presented as sorrowful but rather as a wry observer of human folly. He gets to recite the seven ages of man speech, which begins "All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players." (It's Rosalind, though, who gets to place a familiar phrase into English parlance, when she asks Orlando, "Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?")