For residents of the DC area, the trip to Staunton, Virginia, can seem daunting—especially when you hang that left turn off of I-66 onto I-81 South (a royal pain when accidents stop you in your tracks).
For my money, a leisurely drive down Rt. 11, the local road that runs parallel, and that runs all the way down to Staunton, is just the thing. Relaxing and bucolic, it certainly gets you away from our urban/suburban chaos and in a more relaxed frame of mind.
A road trip to Staunton this spring, moreover, is an absolute must, no matter what it takes. Because some of the funniest, most thrilling theater to be had anywhere near DC is happening right there, right now; and you’d be a fool to miss out on the mayhem.
American Shakespeare Center is offering a true joy ride with their new production of As You Like It, a romantic comedy with more than its share of star turns, and the company at the ASC clearly has a blast bringing all of its characters to life. Performed in the intimate Blackfriars Playhouse, the constant exchanges between actor and audience bring you into the action in ways you never thought possible—and the results are incredibly rewarding.
Unlike most productions, which pare down the cast of the original play by half, the ASC has chosen to show this classic in all its bewildering variety. Courtiers meet shepherds, court fools meet shepherdesses, foolish shepherds chase after smartass shepherdesses, who chase after who looks like a cute young man; toss in an evil duke, and you’ve got yourself a real show.
What makes this production really sing—directed as it was, with kinetic energy galore, by Jen Wineman—is the return of Constance Swain to Blackfriars in the role of Rosalind, the long-suffering, semi-hermit maid banished to the Forest of Arden. Swain’s command of the language, her charisma, and her inimitable personality make her Rosalind one for the ages. Her transformation from a giddy prep-school girl to a goateed, mezzo-voiced “Ganymede” is priceless. And, this being Shakespeare, no sooner has Swain’s Rosalind gone boyo on us than she is set upon by a young woman, the clueless shepherdess Phoebe (played with thick-drawled zest by Summer England), who of course is determined to bag what she thinks is a fine specimen of a young man (obviously, this is not the kind of thing certain statehouses might approve of).
Perhaps the most satisfying artistic choice here is to have a small cast of actors who, through constant costume changes backstage, play multiple roles, giving each of their characters an utterly unique personality. No sooner has ASC veteran Topher Embrey lent his gravitas as the evil Duke Frederick than we see him as Frederick’s exiled brother, the laid-back Duke Senior, puffing a spliff and decked out as if he’d just stepped out of some summer festival. Meanwhile, Embrey’s infectious laugh as the earthy shepherd Corin is a master class in how to play a country bumpkin, whose wisdom and contentment are (by rights) the envy of all the Forest of Arden’s denizens.
Annabelle Rollison, who has perfected her comedic chops in her time at the ASC, gives us plenty to laugh about—beginning with her turn as the arrogant wrestling champion, Charles. She has perfected the brainless bravado of the WWE, and Charles’ loss to the young Orlando (played with discreet charm by Kayla Carter) is as ignominious as it is hilarious. But then Rollison turns around to give us Jaques, the melancholic wanderer. I’ve seen my share of actors doing this character’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech, and have been frustrated by their tendency to see it as a showpiece and little more. Rollison will have none of that; her delivery of this famous speech is one rich with empathy, delivered as it is in the full knowledge that an aging, starving refugee (Adam, played by Summer England) is about to join the Forest of Arden’s circle of exiles. It is wonderful to see Rollison embrace the empathetic side of Jaques’ character—and no sooner done than she transitions to back playing a pair of spurned shepherds, William and Silvius—each hopelessly in love, and only one of whom (Silvius) will get his true desire by the end of the play (and here, again, Rollinson’s portrayal of the male sex triumphant is a hoot and a half).
There’s a fun twist to be seen when it comes to the Blackfriars’ traditional insertion of music in the mix; usually, you are serenaded in the pre-show, and with As You Like It there is a delicious mix of Bob Marley, Taylor Swift, and Hootie and the Blowfish to get things going. But instead of intermission music, the hit songs are peppered throughout the second act of the show, with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” leavening the challenges of a life in exile, and Hootie’s “Only Wanna Be With You” as the theme song that closes out a truly triumphant evening of theater.
Y’all don’t know what you’re missing: stellar acting, in a fully lit, fully interactive performance space, and a love story or three to follow. It’s a great day in the country, a great trip to the Forest of Arden, and it’s about time you got yourselves to Staunton, Virginia.
Running Time: Two hours plus one intermission.
As You Like It plays through May 14, 2023, presented by American Shakespeare Center in repertory with Eurydice at the Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 South Market Street, Staunton, VA. For tickets ($33–$65), call the box office at (540) 851-3400, or purchase them online.
Credits for As You Like It are online here (click on “cast” and on “artistic team”).
COVID Safety: American Shakespeare Center strongly encourages patrons to mask when possible. ASC’s complete COVID-19 Safety Visitor’s Guide is here.
A mesmerizing and exquisite ‘Eurydice’ in rep at American Shakespeare Center (review by KJ Moran Velz, February 27, 2023)