"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."
So begins one of Shakespeare's most famous monologues, from his pastoral comedy, "As You Like It," an apt choice by Quill Theatre to close out the 20th season of Richmond's annual Shakespeare Festival at Agecroft Hall.
"As You Like It," is a play about love and identity, filled with musings on youth and age, country life and courtly life, class and gender, forgiveness and redemption.
The plot features many intertwining stories, but centers on a heroine, Rosalind, who, banished from court, decides to journey to the forest of Arden disguised as a man to avoid rape and robbery while traveling. Her disguise is so convincing that her beloved, Orlando, fails to recognize her when their paths cross in the forest, and an unfortunate shepherdess falls in love with her as Ganymede, her male alter ego. Rosalind is a wise and practical lover, poking fun at those around her who pine and long for the objects of their affection, even mocking the awful poetry Orlando posts about the forest for her. Her love is not blind but all-seeing, and she swiftly dismantles the idea that masculinity is anything more than a set of practiced behaviors.
The Quill Theatre production is delightful, hilarious and accessible. Director James Ricks is at his best. He's modernized the play to the early 1900s, marked by Cora Delbridge's wonderful period costumes and Emma Follmer's careful prop selection. One particularly effective and funny period reference were the words "Gorgeous Charles" emblazoned across the back of a wrestler's robe, calling to mind the American wrestler Gorgeous George. Ricks also plays with the themes of gender and performance, having multiple male characters portrayed by female actors. He utilizes his talented cast well.
And what a cast. Rebecca Turner scintillates as Rosalind, and there is palpable chemistry between her and Jocelyn Honoré who plays her cousin and closest friend, Celia. John Mincks is comedic gold as Touchstone, the court jester who accompanies the two women to the forest. C.J. Bergin is excellent as Orlando. Nicole Morris-Anastasi's nerdy, lisping Phebe, the shepherdess who falls in love with Rosalind as Ganymede, is the star of the second act, and Morris-Anastasi also choreographed the joyful dance at the end of the play. As the perpetually cynical and melancholy Jacques, Luke Schares delivers some of the Bard's most recognizable monologues, including the one mentioned above, to uproarious laughter, beckoning accordionist Juan Harmon to accompany him for added melodrama.
B.J. Wilkinson's lighting design plays nicely against the setting sun and Tennessee Dixon's set elements, including a backdrop of trees for the forest and black curtains to indicate the court: simple and effective. It doesn't hurt, of course, that the play, set primarily in the forest of Arden, is staged outside at Agecroft Hall, where all of the sounds and sensations of the natural world can be counted as a part of the production.
Although the show was rained out for the second act on opening night, the weather the next day was unseasonably pleasant, ideal conditions for this cool, breezy little play. But come rain, shine, wind or heat wave, Quill Theatre's "As You Like It" is sure to have audiences laughing and smiling under the stars.
Quill Theatre's production of "As You Like It" runs at Agecroft Hall until July 29. Tickets cost $30. quilltheatre.org.