Sweet Arden, William Shakespeare's enchanted forest, where troubles melt, love letters fall from trees and happy endings are ensured for all, comes to vibrant life in Idaho Shakespeare Festival's production of "As You Like It," which opened to a packed house Saturday night.
Director Edward Morgan makes his ISF debut with "As You Like It," his charmingly beautiful reinvention of Shakespeare's comedy that explores the playwright's recurring theme of humanity's intersection with nature. But rather than the fairy magic that alters behavior in his earlier "A Midsummer Night's Dream," it's the very quality of it that transforms.
That makes the amphitheater's encroaching trees, chirping birds and shifting natural light feel like a necessary part of Russell Metheny's rotating set, which takes us from a harsh, early-20th-century factory to a golden daguerreotype-like image of the Adirondack Mountains that glows under Rick Martin's lighting.
Here, the tyranny of the court is replaced by the oppression of machinery and punch clocks of the second Industrial Revolution, a setting that speaks to us, as we struggle against the tyranny of the ping of texts, email and social media.
Morgan ditched its Elizabethan tunes and inserted appealing American ditties sung by barbershop quartets, trios and a stellar song-and-dance man.
The story revolves around an exiled duke (Dougfred Miller) and his followers, who live a Utopian life in the forest, and a pair of wandering lovers: his daughter Rosalind (Betsy Mugavero), who also is banished, flees disguised as a boy to Arden to seek her father - and on a separate flight to escape the death plot of his brother (J. Todd Adams) - Orlando (Torsten Johnson), the man she loves.
She brings her cousin Celia (Christine Weber) and Touchstone (Dustin Tucker) along, and they meet a bevy of brilliantly funny characters, from melancholy Jaques (David Anthony Smith) to the mismatched Phoebe (Lori McNally) and Silvius (Juan Rivera Lebron).
Mugavero's Rosalind bubbles with energy and wit as she schools Orlando on how best to woo her; Johnson's Orlando is unabashedly earnest, and Weber's Celia is luminous.
Tucker gives a blistering triple-threat performance as Touchstone, who is cast here as a vaudevillian extraordinaire.
As Jaques, Smith mines the deeper irony and humor in the text just with his phrasing and fluctuating tone. His "Seven Ages of Man" speech is worth the ticket price alone.
If you think Shakespeare's plays are hard to understand, give this one a try. It might just bring you back to the Bard.
This show has a short run - just 12 more chances to see it before it's off to open Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival's season. It's really a don't miss.
Dana Oland: 377-6442, Twitter: @IDS_DanaOland