STERLING PERFORMANCES: Reiner and Colonna.
Shakespeare in the Park can be enjoyable even when the performance itself is run-of-the-mill — the bucolic setting, the evening breeze, perhaps a picnic beforehand. But when a production as first-rate as this comes along, we are transformed into delighted and enraptured groundlings, every bottle of Sam Adams suddenly a tankard of mead.
As You Like It, directed by Harland Meltzer and produced by Westerly’s Colonial Theatre in Wilcox Park (through August 3), accomplishes what every production of a Shakespeare comedy tries to do: make the centuries fall away along with the archaic diction and the lighthearted characters seem as vividly contemporary in time as they are in their sharing our space.
There are several actors who pull us in like that, but this show belongs to Alysia Reiner, captivating us with the spirited character that the comedy revolves around, Rosalind. She is the daughter of Duke Senior (Ed Franklin), whose title has been stolen by his younger brother, Duke Frederick (also played by Franklin). Out of guilt, he has kept his niece Rosalind under his protection and as a playmate for his daughter Celia (Purva Bedi), but now he wants her out of his sight and so banishes her. Loyal friend Celia joins her to run off into the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind’s exiled father and a band of his followers have been living.
Meanwhile, in another part of this unjust tale, Orlando (Enrique Bravo) has thrashed his older brother Oliver, who has been treating him as a servant and refuses to share their dead father’s fortune. Before he leaves, Orlando enters and wins a wrestling match, despite his brother arranging to have the wrestler break his neck. Rosalind witnesses the victory and is impressed, a romance clearly in the offing.
In the fine Shakespearean tradition of cross-dressing and mistaken identities, Rosalind disguises herself as a boy, named Ganymede, supposedly protecting his sister Aliena (Celia). This allows Ganymede/Rosalind to give plenty of shoulder-punching guy-to-guy advice about women to Orlando, who has admitted to falling in love with Rosalind.
Reiner has the knack of naturalness, making Rosalind come across as contemporary, despite the Elizabethan language, and as fun-loving as if As You Like It were a classy sitcom written yesterday. Reiner has sly fun, issuing such observations as “Love is merely a madness and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do.” I’d thought that Rebecca Hall in the Royal Shakespeare Company production a few years back had a lock on the definitive such playful interpretation, but Reiner rises to her level.
As Celia, Bedi gives her and her character good company, making their interplay as frothy as a female buddy film. There are some weak performances here, but the important roles are filled well. The jester Touchstone is delightfully brought to life by Bob Colonna, whose glib manner could charm the frown off Lear. As the dour Orlando, Bravo doesn’t get much opportunity to lighten up, but his consistently serious presence, from voice to stance, is an effective straight-man foil to the hijinks. Even the initially villainous older brother Oliver is convincing in his later change of heart, as handled by Charles Anthony (aka Rudy Sanda).