'As You Like It' fits snugly into Shakespeare & Company's intimate outdoor space

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LENOX — The natural birch trees that are the chief structural features of Jim Youngerman's set for Shakespeare & Company's outdoor production of "As You Like It" are thin and young; not yet leafy or verdant. They are emblematic of a first act that is set in an environment, the court of the usurping Duke Frederick, that is restrictive, confining, virtually oxygen deprived, and a second act that is about life blossoming, about to burst into a verdant pastoral landscape.

On the whole, Allyn Burrows' steady, ably acted production sits comfortably in Shakespeare & Company's new outdoor venue, the Roman Garden Theatre, which opened last year with "The Tempest."

Most notable this year is the intimacy Burrows and his cast have achieved, especially in a second act that finds would-be and wannabe lovers — Rosalind and her Orlando; Silvius and his Phoebe who, in turn, is in pursuit of Rosalind in her young man guise, Ganymede; Touchstone (the court jester, who, like Rosalind, Celia and Orlando also flees to Arden), a man in Shakespeare's original, a female here (MaConnia Chasser) and her shepherd, Aubrey (originally Audrey); and Oliver, Orlando's treacherous older brother, who has been sent by Duke Frederick to Arden where he is rescued by Orlando and unexpectedly finds love with Celia — running wild in the Forest of Arden.

Shakespeare is far more successful than Burrows in knitting the threads of his merry, witty romance into one cloth. Here, within the snug confines of the Roman Garden Theatre, it often feels as if two faintly related plays are at work — the first a bit chaotic, out of order even within the order of the court; the second fully committed and engaged despite the chaos that reigns before love's order prevails.

It helps immeasurably that Burrows' production has at its center a shimmering Rosalind in Aimee Doherty. Her Rosalind is a smart, grounded woman who, despite the fact that her usurping authoritarian uncle, Duke Frederick (a growling, barking Nigel Gore), has forced her gentle father (also played by Gore, this with welcoming grace) into exile, remains in Duke Frederick's court at his permission and in spite of her resentment and resistance until, that is, he inexplicably kicks her out.

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Doherty's Rosalind comes into her own — as does everyone — in the liberating atmosphere of Arden where, disguised as a youthful man named Ganymede, her intelligence, determination, resourcefulness, girlishness and womanliness prove more than reliable tools as she systematically sets about to woo and win Orlando (a pleasant, amiable Deaon Griffin-Pressley) without compromising his sense of manhood. She doesn't count on becoming the love object of a shepherdess named Phoebe (Ella Loudon in a performance as inspired and rich as her portrayal of a dandified courtier, LeBeau, now named LaBelle, in the first act). She skillfully fends off Phoebe, who is as determined to catch Ganymede as she is to shake loose her ardent pursuer, Silvius (Gregory Boover, an earnest and tuneful minstrel).

Chesser is bold, expansive Touchstone. Mark Zeisler's Jaques is, at best, vaguely defined. As Rosalind's cousin, Celia, Zoe Laiz is an amiable and resourceful companion, and Thomas Brazzle is effective as Orlando's treacherous older brother, Oliver, who finds rescue and redemption in the Forest of Arden, not to mention love when he meets Celia, who falls in love with him at once.

Burrows has trimmed much of the play; removed the clutter; stripped away characters; consolidated; pared the cast to only nine actors, most of whom double up; reconfigured the seating; replaced last year's wooden stage with a playing surface of mulch over a base of clay and sand — all of which accounts for the production's impressive economy and intimacy.

While it does not substantively detract, neither does Burrows' decision to set "As You Like It" in the 1920s offer much, if anything, in the way of fresh insight. It's also a bit inconsistently applied. The recorded soundtrack that accompanies the production before each act begins is period, Boover's own songs carry a more contemporary American folk temperament. The '20s setting is a pretext for some delicious costuming by Govane Lohbauer and, in what is becoming a wearing signature element, provides an excuse for the cast to burst into another of Susan Dibble's pre-curtain-call dances.

Still, when all is said and one, "As You Like It," which takes advantage of natural daylight and plays out in the hours just before sunset, fits snugly and harmlessly into a welcoming spot just across the terrace from the Tina Packer Playhouse.

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at 413-496-6212 or jborak@berkshireeagle.com


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