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Helen Howard as Rosalind
La Boite Theatre's first show for 2012 is a fun and engaging production of Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It.
One of the bard's most riotous romps, As You Like It tells the story of Rosalind (the daughter of a duke who's been usurped by his conniving brother) and Orlando (the maltreated youngest son of a dead nobleman).
Rosalind's uncle, Duke Frederick, keeps her at court as company for his daughter, Celia. In great Shakespearian tradition, when Orlando competes in a wrestling match sponsored by the evil duke, he and Rosalind fall instantly in love.
Not long afterwards, Rosalind is banished by Frederick, and Orlando flees his aggressive brother. They head separately to the Forest of Arden, now home to Rosalind's father and his loyal men. Rosalind is dressed as a boy, and has taken on the name 'Ganymede' as part of her disguise.
Of course, it's not long till Orlando and 'Ganymede' cross paths in the forest, and Rosalind decides to test Orlando's love for her. She comes up with a convoluted proposal whereby 'Ganymede' will 'pretend' to be 'Rosalind' and Orlando must visit each day so that she can see if he truly loves this women as he claims.
Of course, Orlando agrees, and farce ensues as a woman pretending to be a man pretends to be a woman acting the coquette to a man who thinks he loves the 'real' woman. And, naturally, being Shakespeare, there's plenty more going on in the forest than just the central plot.
La Boite's lively production of this boisterous play puts experienced local actor Helen Howard in the role of Rosalind, one of Shakespeare's meatiest female parts. Howard is substantially older than those typically cast as Rosalind, and I must confess that I found some of the character's 'dizzier' lines incongruous coming from a mature woman.
Nevertheless, the talented Howard brought an impressive vivacity, incisiveness and physicality to Rosalind, creating a highly entertaining as well as endearing character. She also demonstrated a feel for the rhythm and sense of Shakespearian dialogue that made it accessible and enjoyable for a modern audience.
Young Brisbane actor Thomas Larkin (now based in Melbourne) was Orlando to Howard's Rosalind. Larkin captured the exuberance and inner turmoils of youth, and had real chemistry with Howard in key scenes.
Other standouts were Helen Cassidy as a beguiling and funny Celia, Bryan Probets as the witty Touchstone, and Trevor Stuart as the melancholy nobleman, Jaques. Stuart, in particular, delivered Shakespeare's words with resonance and clarity, and his 'seven ages of man' speech was a highlight.
Earning plenty of laughs was Hayden Stuart in his cross-dressed role as the homely Audrey, the object of Touchstone's desire. In fact, cross-dressing was rife in the production, with director David Berthold casting women in the roles of Rosalind's father and his 'men'. This not only reinforced the play's themes, but also toyed with the conventions of the Shakespearian era, when all parts were played by males (with young men taking on the female roles).
The other star of the show was the stage design, with what at first appeared a (somewhat drab) utilitarian set revealing colourful surprises as the play progressed. Live music was also used to good effect, with ensemble work from the cast (including local acting students) bringing Shakespeare's songs to life.
Overall, this is a fun production with much to recommend it. While not every cast-member is dazzling, there's enough going on to keep the audience laughing and engaged. There's also much food for thought, both in Shakespeare's script and Berthold's staging of it; if you have time, I recommend Googling the play and learning a little more about its subtleties before you go.
But, if you don't, that's fine too. Just turn up and enjoy an entertaining production of one of the great comedies.