University of Miami's current production is probably 'As You Like It'

CORAL GABLES -- If you're like many people, the hectic atmosphere amid the "the real world," takes a toll after a while.

You need an escape to a serene setting to relax, slowly think through problems and possible solutions while allowing yourself to breath easily, unwind and even have fun.

A pastoral setting such as a forest can be that place, as Shakespeare suggests in his popular romantic comedy "As You Like It."

A group of talented and energetic University of Miami students are performing the play at the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre in an enchanting, vivacious, thoroughly entertaining production. If you haven't seen the mostly commendable production, there's little time to relax, though; the production continues through Saturday.

There's little plot in "As You Like it," one of Shakespeare's last romantic comedies. It's for the most part a light, escapist comedy, a respite from your cares and worries. The characters, who take pause in a forest from a world of troubles, also seek a respite, but not necessarily by choice. Especially today, with the refugee crisis, there's a dark side to the play; some characters have been exiled. But as opposed to the crisis unfolding today, in the play they end up someplace delightful.

"As You Like It" isn't unlike Shakespeare's beloved classic "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- that refreshing, soothing comic delight perhaps best performed outdoors during a comfortable, spring, quiet, moonlit night with a gentle breeze tickling your skin.

"As You Like It" features a similar structure to "Dream." Both begin in the "real world" where problems sprout. The action continues in nature or a world of fantasy where it becomes easier for characters to fix the problems. The play ends back in the "real world" where a resolution is achieved -- a happy one, of course, since "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "As You Like It" are comedies.

As directed by Peter Ellenstein, the division between our "real world" in 2016 and the world of the play doesn't exist. The fact that Ellenstein ignores the "fourth wall" is evident from the production's beginning. We enter the Ring Theatre's intimate round auditorium to find actors not in character, but engaging in warm-up exercises such as deep breathing and emitting nonsensical noises. There's no curtain.

Ellenstein's framing device is that the actors are the "Ring Theatre Players," similar to performers who used to comprise "itinerant bands of actors (who) wandered the towns for hire and set up wherever they could, performing in courtyards and storefronts and town squares," as the director writes in his notes.

"Here ye, Here ye," cast members proclaim, informing us they're about to stage a production of "As You Like It." for our "diversion." Each actor mentions the role(s) he/she will play before getting into character for the start of the performance.

And what performances these promising college students give! Some actors stumble over their lines a few times, but to a large degree, their performances are blessed with spontaneity, energy and a command of Shakespeare's language you often see from seasoned, classical actors. These thespians not only clearly enunciate the Bard's language -- language that's tongue-twisting and unfamiliar to most of us who weren't alive when the Bard lived more than 400 years ago -- the performers make the words their own, understanding and conveying the emotions attached to the words while fully inhabiting their characters.

Perhaps the most famous words of "As You Like It" are found in the "All the World's A Stage" passage, spoken by one of the duke's senior lords, Jaques (an appropriately melancholy, cynical, often poker-faced and deadpan Taylor Stutz, who offers a multi-faceted performance with varied expressions and vocal inflections).

Shakespeare's comedies weren't 100 percent comical and upbeat, and the "All The World's a Stage" is an example of a deviation. It's a somber reflection, using theatrical parlance as a metaphor for the stages of life, from infanthood to death. While it has a dark undertone, the passage is infused with wit and Stutz, a cast standout, captures these moods impressively.

Director Ellenstein's choice to set some scenes amid the audience reinforces the notion that we're all players on the stage of life. At times, I found myself wondering where the opening words to a scene were coming from, only to glance to my side and witness it.

The cast interacts with audience members (you never know who it will be, so beware those of you with stage fright, for the "stage" exists in multiple places throughout the auditorium and we're all actors on the stage of life!).

The centrally-located playing area features a circular stage set up in front of a backdrop of wooden boards. An opening in a couple of the boards reveals a green screen, meant to suggest the greenery of the Forest of Arden. Duke Senior, older brother of Duke Frederick, has been exiled to that forest by his elder brother. Meanwhile, the young Orlando learns his cruel older brother Oliver (a stern, serious Joey Casseb) wants him dead, so he escapes to Arden. Rosalind and her cousin, Celia, learn about her father's banishment, and follow him to Arden.

There, Rosalind schools Orlando in the fine art of love while dressed as a boy named Ganymede; a young shepherd, Silvius (a comically desperate Matt Sawalski) pathetically chases after a young shepherdess, Phoebe (a charming, sexy and elusive Broghan Phelan) who instead falls for whom she thinks is Ganymede and other romance and mischief play out.

Our enjoyment of the play is due in large part to what we know and some of the characters don't. For example, Orlando's oblivious to the fact that behind "Ganymede's" male appearance is his love, Rosalind. Such mistaken identities of gender and cross dressing are common in Shakespeare's comedies. Comedy of the "low" order, or slapstic is present in "As You Like It," such as Silvius' hopelessly desperate (in a comic sort of way) attempt to woo Phoebe. The "mating call" emanating from Sawalski, as Silvius, sometimes takes on a sustained, high pitch, which adds to the humor.

So does Bobby Eddy as Touchstone, one of Shakespeare's fools...characters who are often ironically smarter than some of the characters with a higher social status.

Eddy's Touchstone is no dummy, but a humorous, nimble, sneaky, unpredictable person with an arsenal of comic vocal inflections and postures.

Ellie Goldenberg shines as Rosalind, capturing her confidence, spirit, charm and smarts. Rosalind, a favorite Shakespeare heroin among many and whom several famous actresses have portrayed, has many lines. Goldenberg proves she has the stamina in a bravo performance. Goldenberg could lower her voice a bit when Rosalind pretends she's Ganymede. During these times, the young actress sounds more like a tomboyish girl than a boy.

Goldenberg and Lily Steven as cousin Celia (a devoted, charming and comforting Steven) have a believable, seemingly inseparable bond. The two tightly and closely hold both of each others' hands as though they've known each other since pre-school and have seen each other daily up to this point.

Each of the cast members, some of whom could more fully embody their characters, have nonetheless done themselves proud.

So, too, has lighting designer Bryan Kaschube, whose green hues help create the scene of a forest. During one particular magical moment, an otherworldy lighting effect will rivet you to the stage.

Costume designer Michiko Kitayama Skinner appropriately clothes villainous or somber characters, such as the melancholy Jaques, in black and has created eye-catching, colorful costumes for the others.

Scenic designer Yoshinori Tanokura's simple scenic design leaves much to the imagination, including wooden boards that are meant to be trees.

Perhaps no other Shakespeare play contains as much music and composer Michael Silversher has created upbeat, catchy songs appropriate for this comedy, sung impressively by cast members.

Director Ellenstein has cast members playing instruments such as guitars that evokes the image of folks seated around a campfire, singing and playing. 

The director also arranges the actors in a semi-circle, reinforcing the relaxing, casual atmosphere in the woods. One directorial choice, which involves a cast member holding up a sign indicating daytime or nighttime is cute at first, but turns annoying as the play progresses.

"As You Like It" may be popular, but it wasn't with everybody, particularly Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw. He dismissed it as frivolous, frothy entertainment.

This comedy might amount to mostly escapist fare, but Shakespeare has thought-provoking things to say about the nature of love and the types of romance.

The play's title might indicate Shakespeare's hope that he's written the play as you please, but it could also refer to how you like, or love someone, whether it be in earnest, love at first sight or simply in love with being in love.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: William Shakespeare's "As You Like It."

WHEN: Through Saturday. Performance times are 8 p.m. today as well as 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Jerry Herman Ring Theatre, 1312 Miller Drive, on the University of Miami campus.

HOW MUCH: Regular admission is $25, seniors/alumni/UM faculty and staff $22 and $10 for students. Call (305) 284-3355.