In As You Like It, Shakespeare takes an amused look at how men and women behave when they're in love. The romantic comedy is being presented by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company through July 8 at Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, alternating with Henry V.
Shakespeare knew a plot was necessary, but he was more interested in the love stories he wanted to tell. For a framework, he used a common theatrical situation -- a duke is overthrown and banished by his jealous and power-hungry younger brother.
The duke and some loyal followers take refuge in the Forest of Arden. There was a real Forest of Arden near Shakespeare's hometown of Stratford-on-Avon, but in this play he moves it to France and stocks it, improbably, with palm trees and lions. He is telling us not to take the show too seriously.
Several other characters, for one reason or another, also flee to the forest. The duke's daughter, Rosalind, arrives with Celia, her cousin and best friend, and a clown called Touchstone.
Later comes young Orlando with his servant Adam. Rosalind and Orlando had fallen in love with each other before coming to the forest, but she has now disguised herself as a boy called Ganymede. Shakespeare asks us to accept the notion that Orlando does not recognize her. We have to swallow that if we want the rest of the show to make sense. Rosalind, brilliant, witty and emotional, is one of Shakespeare's most interesting heroines. The fun she has with Orlando, playing him along and then reeling him in, form the heart of the play.
In the current production, Christina Schlegel is an energetic Rosalind and Wayne Willinger an earnest Orlando. Rebecca Ellis, as Celia, lends cheerful and sometimes sarcastic support to Rosalind's schemes.
Three other love affairs add to the romantic atmosphere. The wisecracking Touchstone (Kevin Costa) pursues a countrywoman called Audrey (Lindsay Kitt Wiebe), though he cannot help putting her down to get laughs.
A simple-hearted shepherd named Silvius (Bob Alleman) falls for a fiery shepherdess, Phebe (Ashly Ruth Fishell). Rosalind, ever the busybody, tries to break down Phebe's resistance to Silvius. This only makes things worse: Phebe, thinking she is a boy named Ganymede, falls in love with her.
Rosalind needs all of her considerable wit to get out of that mess.
Celia, who has patiently watched others fall in love, is finally fixed up with Orlando's brother, Oliver (Michael P. Sullivan).
Shakespeare restores the duke to power with a few perfunctory strokes, and the show ends with four couples heading for the altar.
Frank Mancino portrays a gentle, benevolent duke. As the melancholy Jacques, one of his loyal followers, Nathan Thomas is more irritable than melancholy. (It is traditional to pronounce his name JAY-queez, but in this production it is Zhock.) Others in the huge cast include Vince Eisenson (Le Beau), Colby Codding (Jacques de Bois and Corin), Frank B. Moorman (Adam) and Steve Beall (Sir Oliver Martext).
Director Ian Gallanar takes a free hand with Shakespeare's script, rearranging scenes for the sake of simpler set changes, bestowing names on some of Shakespeare's anonymous lords and pages and splitting one character, Charles the wrestler, into a pair of brothers (played by Steve Beall and Joel Ballard).
The duke's usurping younger brother, Frederick, is changed to a younger sister, a self-styled duchess (portrayed by Jenny Leopold with hard face, stiff posture and stern voice).
For reasons he explains in the program, Gallanar sets the play in France's Belle Epoque -- around 1890-1900. French cafe music, heavy on the accordion, punctuates the action. Except for that and some of the costumes, however, traces of the period are hard to find in the performance.
There have been more subtle and polished productions of As You Like It, but Gallanar's inventive direction and his enthusiastic cast give the audience an enjoyable evening.
The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presents "As You Like It" on June 10, 15, 23, 24, 29, 30, July 7 and 8 at Patapsco Female Institute, 3691 Sarahs Lane, Ellicott City. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays. The performance June 23 will be a double- header, with "Henry V" at 4 p.m. and "As You Like It" at 8 p.m. Free parking is available in the Howard County Courthouse lot on Court House Drive. Tickets: 866-811-4111, or www.chesapeake shakespeare.com. Information: 410-752-3994.