In the former dance studio at the top of Medford's Springstep Building, where Actors' Shakespeare Project is presenting its frisky As You Like It, the Forest of Arden is tripped out in mirrors, tree trunks, and what looks like tin foil. Designed by Grace Laubacher, it's a silvery glade whose strips of metallic trim glow icy or verdant depending on how Jeff Adelberg lights them. And unless you are Rosalind in male disguise, it's a great place to let your hair down — and Paula Plum's lusty Touchstone does just that. Unwilling to let the good duke's daughter do all the cross-dressing, this Touchstone promptly doffs the Groucho-like male persona she assumed at court and turns into a quick-talking cougar wench with a yen for a piece of bumpkin beefcake named Aubrey!
That is one of several odd twists that shouldn't work but do in this rambunctious if less than lyrical production of the Bard's comedy of transformative love, not to mention country copulation, that ping-pongs between sinister civilization and a woodsy utopia marred only by "rough weather." Director Robert Walsh is also a fight director, so, not surprisingly, the violence of usurping Duke Frederick's court and its suburbs is painfully convincing: Both Orlando's smackdown with his tyrannical brother Oliver and the one with court wrestler Charles are brutal come-from-behind affairs replete with audible body slams. Of course, in the latter bout, Orlando overthrows not just the duke's bruiser but also the heroine's heart.
Once the two have fled to the forest, she doffing her punk corset for rustic male disguise and accompanied by her royal cousin/BFF Celia, the clashes take a turn toward the giddy and emotive. And in the Actors' Shakespeare Project production, as soon as Orlando gets over the half-starvation that makes him discourteous, everyone seems to have a very good time. Even Jenny Israel's female Jaques is wrapped in a veritable ecstasy of melancholy. Sucking the sadness from Katie Elinoff's sweet renderings of the Bard's songs for the courtier Amiens (hauntingly set by composer/sound designer David Reiffel), she almost swoons with pleasure.
The court, with its black-clad courtiers slinking about and its ruler ricocheting between false bonhomie and bellowing rage, is anything but a "golden world." (At one point Joel Colodner's ranting Duke Frederick is amplified like the Wizard of Oz.) Even Touchstone, pre-Arden, is something of a spy. By contrast, life in the forest is as playful as can be, with perhaps a bit too much horsing around between Rosalind and Orlando and Rosalind and Celia but also with a heady sense of liberation.
Colodner's Duke Senior is a sage nature lover decked out like an English country gentleman, his courtiers holiday picnickers skipping breezily over the un-Arcadian bits like the slaughter of the forest's "native burghers." Brooke Hardman, a winningly unaffected Rosalind, does more than pass in her jaunty, cap-clad persona as the "youth" Ganymede, and she makes the most of the latter's panicky lapses into near self-betrayal. Though Jesse Hinson's Orlando at first seems merely handsome, once in the woods he brings a snarky sense of competitive comeuppance to his exchanges with Jaques that makes him more a match than just a meal for Rosalind. Plum, though far from the "rancid" Touchstone called for by the critic Harold Bloom, makes bravura work of the clown's oft-arcane comic routines, including the one that covers Rosalind's quick change back into female form for the finale (a sort of full-cast Burgomask followed by a square dance sans epilogue). As Celia, Mara Sidmore is an appropriately diminutive and mischievous sidekick who often cannot believe what her bolder "coz," in the guise of curing her beloved of love, dares get up to. The production, more gender-bent than most, may not be (as Rosalind says of the unfortunate Phebe) "for all markets." But with its quick pace and joie de vivre, it lives up to Bloom's contention that the Forest of Arden is "simply the best place to live, anywhere in Shakespeare."