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As You Like It                  American Players Theatre, 2010

Mike Fischer – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Set Shakespeare’s greatest comedy in the hard times of America’s Great Depression? It sounds like another gimmicky attempt to make the Bard relevant by ignoring what he wrote. But seeing is believing, and American Players Theatre’s new production of As You Like It will make you a convert. Whether you’re a Shakespeare nut or have never seen a Shakespeare play, this one is a "can’t miss," worthy of a summer pilgrimage.

As was true for many people during the Depression, As You Like It takes place on the road, suggested here by scenic designer Andrew Boyce’s boxcar backdrop and Josh Schmidt’s plaintive sound design. Banished from an urban world of cops and gangsters, the good guys hitch a ride into the woods and try to start over.

By setting the play in the 1930s, director Tim Ocel makes clear that pastoral in As You Like It is no picnic - something that gets lost when this play is done as a Shakespearean version of Robin Hood. While the forest is filled with light, laughter and love, people here are also poor and go hungry. Wild beasts lurk. An old man dies and is buried. And dazed people who have lost their bearings must try to find themselves.

Leading the way is Rosalind, disguised as a boy to protect herself from a world of lonely men with nowhere to go. Madly in love with Orlando, Rosalind is also acutely aware that love is finite and men are fickle. Living in her exhilarating moment, she nevertheless sees all the way to eternity. She is Shakespeare’s greatest heroine, and playing her requires an actor with a big heart and tremendous range.

Enter Hillary Clemens, whose fresh-scrubbed face radiates newfound passion, while also managing to deliver timeless truths with a homespun common sense that matches her worn overalls.

As Rosalind schools Matt Schwader’s Orlando in the art of love, one understands why he has a crush on his teacher - and why her boyish disguise hides nothing, from him or us. Long before Rosalind appears dressed as herself, the chemistry between these charismatic young lovers will not be denied.

It’s a good thing the leads are so strong, because another couple - Colleen Madden as Audrey and David Daniel as Touchstone - might otherwise steal the show. Daniel’s hilarious send-up of 1930s movies transforms a throwaway scene of just 60 lines into the funniest three minutes I’ve seen this year on stage.

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