Keep Shakespeare Weird 

The Portland Shakespeare Project's Vital As You Like It

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As You Like It is a weird play. The plot employs many of Shakespeare's usual comedy tropes (banished royalty, complicated romance, cross-dressing) but lacks a solid context. At times it feels like the story of a lot of bored rich people—which makes the Portland Shakespeare Project's production all the more impressive.

Director Michael Mendelson is aided by a stellar cast: Aside from a few fast talkers (who seem to forget that when speaking Shakespeare's language you have to help the audience understand it), the ensemble is anchored by Cristi Miles as Rosalind, who excelled no matter what gender she was portraying: She's at turns charming, hilarious, wry, and touching.

The play follows Rosalind as she is banished from court by her uncle, the duke. His daughter Celia, Rosalind's devoted cousin, follows her into exile, along with Touchstone the clown. To disguise themselves Rosalind dresses as a man; in the forest, they run across a runaway youth, the humble and earnest Orlando (Jake Street), to whom Rosalind had professed her love before being banished.

Touchstone is one of Shakespeare's most boisterous clowns, and Darius Pierce plays him with an intensity that is at best manic and at worst disdainful, but the most surprising casting turn is Jill Westerby as the melancholy lord (lady?) Jacques. Normally played as brooding and melodramatic, Westerby's Jacques is phenomenal, commanding the stage in flapper attire, proudly delivering Jacques's cynical lines without irony or sympathy. It's not every day you get to see an actor take one of theater's most clichéd speeches ("All the world's a stage...") and nail it out of the fucking park. Seriously. I got the chills.

The ability to take the familiar and make it engaging is what distinguishes this production of As You Like It. Alongside Pierce and Westerby challenging and haunting us, the principles hold the play down. Cristi Miles and Jake Street even bring credibility and tension to its oddest conceit, which is Rosalind (in disguise) insisting that Orlando woo her to cure him of his love sickness.

Yeah, it's a weird play. But this production is an absolute delight. There is something of a message here, probably involving patience and virtue, but mostly it's a romp, with Jacques in the middle to remind us of the pain that makes life vital.

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