Arts & Culture

'As You Like It' scores in Sarasota

In the lobby after opening night of "As You Like it" in Sarasota, an audience member commented that it was the best production of Shakespeare that he had ever seen.

That's not likely to be true for most people, at least most who have seen a decent number of Shakespeare plays.

But the current production from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training is bright, colorful and inventive. It's also quite entertaining, punctuating its laughs with moments of elegance and emotion.

The most immediately striking aspects of the production are the simple but beautiful set and lights by Chris McVicker. The set is basically just circus silks hanging from the ceiling, but together with the lighting they make an immediate impression.

On opening night, the cast -- all second-year acting students from conservatory -- at first seemed uneasy, delivering their lines too rapidly, losing the poetry and making the dialogue and story difficult to follow.

But they settled down quickly, and soon Shakespeare's words and one of his most-loved plays began to spring to life.

Director Jonathan Epstein has pared down the play to not much more than an hour and a half, and it's fast-paced and a lot of fun, The humor comes from characteristically Shakespearean wordplay, mistaken identity and gender reversal, but "As You Like It" has a lot of soul.

At its heart, "As You Like It" is a love story. Orlando (Josh James) and Rosalind (Kelsey Peterson) fall in love at first sight, but then are separated. They later meet in a forest, represented by that array of silks, but Rosalind is disguised as a young boy. Orlando does not recognize her, but she cajoles him into a role-playing game in which she plays the object of his affection and he pretends to court her.

The entire cast, most of whom play several roles, is strong, especially in the second act. Peterson is especially charming, and Evan Reynolds White is a lot of fun to watch, especially in his smaller role as Corin.

Becki Leigh Stafford's costumes range from obvious -- ragtag outfits reminiscent of many productions of "Godspell" -- to inventive and beautiful, especially the graceful costumes for the deer that play an important role.

Even more impressive than the cast's vocal delivery is their physical work. The circus silks function as the tress of the forest, and the young actors climb, swing and dance through the forest with joy and confidence.

This isn't the most poetic version of Shakespeare you'll ever see, but it's solid and invigorating. The fact that you're watching young actors handling such difficult material with such aplomb, and that you know they'll just get better at Shakespeare as they get more experience, only makes it more fulfilling.

Details: Through Jan. 18 in the Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. 2 p.m. matinee Saturday, Jan. 3. Tickets: $28-$29. Information: 941-351-8000, asolorep.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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