In the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts production of As You Like It, director Bruce Longworth (also head of the Conservatory's acting program) and his talented student cast have given us a spanking good show, full of songs, physical comedy and strong characters, reminding us that, first and foremost, Shakespeare was an entertainer.
As You Like It is described as one of the playwright's mature comedies, with rich language and themes about time's passage and the threat of mortality. These characters don't go into the woods for a romp but to meet their destiny. Longworth, who directed the Rep's popular Taming of the Shrew a few seasons back, has fashioned a charming and emotional prologue in which we see the younger versions of cousins Rosalind and Celia (Hannah and Emma Mills), the bond between them and the banishment that sent Rosalind's father, the Duke, into the Forest of Arden.
The first act is dark; there's little humor until the plot kicks in, with the grownup Rosalind being exiled like her father and she and Celia deciding to take to the gloomy and stormy woods. Rosalind goes looking for her father but finds a lover instead. It's this journey that Longworth emphasizes, and senior Jillian Jakub keeps Rosalind the strong emotional center of the story. Jakub is at her best in Act 2, when, disguised as a man, she teases and tests her beloved Orlando (a very capable Kevin Worley). Erika Thompson presents a nice counterpoint as the bubbly but earnest Celia, who longs for love and finally finds it. The happy ending, complete with chirping birds, arrives as required, and the characters have certainly earned it, but in Longworth's bittersweet coda the women bid goodbye to their younger selves, reminding us of what the characters gave up to get here.
Although the production's first act drags a bit under the burden of getting all these stories going, the second act takes off and flies toward its magical ending. This is a Shakespeare in which you're grateful they didn't cut all those subplots and extraneous characters, all of whom are played delightfully by the ensemble of undergrads. Special mention goes to Elena Gronlund as Phoebe, Alex Younger as Silvius and Alex Cannon as the melancholy Jacques, and to Faith Sandberg, whose character of Audrey was apparently based on Roseanne. Brian Pracht, in a confident, polished performance as Touchstone, comes close to walking away with the show.
Tech credits, as always at Webster, are first-rate, with set designer Peter R. Farrell's forest of sliding panels and C.M. Riley's 19th-century costumes both effective. A mention also to Kim Bozark for his exciting staging of the wrestling match.