The bucolic, open-air environment of the Topanga Canyon-based Theatricum Botanicum is a perfect setting for Shakespeare’s comedic tale of lords and ladies, peasants and shepherds romping through France’s Forest of Arden, eluding mildly threatening villains and getting through some gentle plot twists, finally pairing off quite nicely at the end. Director Ellen Geer certainly knows her theater space as she expertly guides her large ensemble up and down hills and around trees while never allowing the surge and energy of the Bard’s dialogue to sag or falter.
Shakespeare is much more interested in relationships than in plot development as he conveniently dispatches of cumbersome situations with announcements of some offstage event that clears the way for the forest dwellers to get on with their lives.
The playful charm of this work is embodied in the interplay of cousins Rosalind (Melora Marshall) and Celia (Susan Angelo), two noblewomen who have fled to the untamed Forest of Arden to escape the treachery of Celia’s father, Duke Frederick (Leonard Kelly Young), and to seek out Rosalind’s own father, the banished Duke Senior (Tom Allard), who has been living happily in the forest with a band of other exiled countrymen.
Marshall’s Rosalind and Angelo’s Celia exude intelligence, guile and sensuality as they invade the forest disguised as a young man and a country maid, respectively, accompanied by the Duke’s court jester, Touchstone (James Lefave).
It is readily believable that these two ladies have been together all their lives, playfully encouraging and chiding each other through Rosalind’s comical romantic adventures with the handsome young nobleman Orlando (played with great flair by Sheridan Crist) and, later, Celia’s mercurial infatuation with Orlando’s formerly villainous but now repentant brother, Oliver (Laurence Drozd).
Adding texture to this woodland tale is Touchstone’s waggish courtship of the country wench, Audrey, played with lustful intensity by Lefave and Rebecca Rasmussen, respectively, and Sarah Gossage’s hilarious turn as the shepherdess Phoebe, who adamantly rejects the courtship of the lovesick shepherd, Silvius (Kelly Vincent), because she is ravenously attracted to Rosalind, whom she believes to be a man.
Allard lends an authoritative air of bemused dignity as the exiled Duke Senior. Young segues adroitly from the vicious ranting of Duke Ferdinand to the droll musings of the shepherd, Corin. Faring less successfully is Aled Davies as the misanthropic nobleman, Jaques, whose toneless rendering of one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies (“All the world’s a stage …”) comes off more bloodless than understated.