Bryce Dallas Howard and Lorenzo Pisoni in As You Like It(Photo: © Michal Daniel)
Bryce Dallas Howard and Lorenzo Pisoni
in As You Like It
(Photo: © Michal Daniel)
A production of As You Like It has blown into The Public Theater after a happy run at the New York International Fringe Festival last year, replacing the previously announced Two Noble Kinsmen. In light of the last-minute-ness of the production's entry into the Public's season schedule, not to mention a delayed opening, the slightly ramshackle look of the show might seem to bode ill. But do not be deceived: This As You Like It is a welcome breath of fresh air.

Before the lights have even gone down, the six members of the cast burst onto the thrust stage (well, it's really more like a big, rectangular floor) of the Public's Martinson Hall to begin the play. Any doubts the viewer may have about a mere six people being able to fill all of the roles in Shakespeare's popular comedy appear to be immediately validated when cast member Lorenzo Pisoni begins, alone, to act out an argument between brothers Orlando and Oliver -- except that he pulls it off brilliantly. Still doubtful? A little coup de théâtre involving a bowler hat and a back flip will soon change your mind.

For those unfamiliar with the play, a quick plot synopsis: Orlando (Pisoni), son of a wealthy landowner, and Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard), daughter of exiled Duke Senior (Drew Cortese), meet briefly and fall in love. Then the mean Duke Frederick (Cortese) banishes Orlando to the Forest of Arden, going on to banish Rosalind, who decides to pose as a man in order to maintain her safety in the forest. Rosalind's best friend, Celia (Lethia Nall), joins her in banishment, and the pair are accompanied by court jester Touchstone (Johnny Giacalone). Rosalind and Celia, as well as Orlando, meet all kinds of crazy characters in the forest, including the shepherd Silvius (Cortese), the shepherdess Phebe (Jennifer Ikeda), the country girl Audrey (Ikeda), the malcontent Jacques (Giacalone), and the kind Duke Senior. Eventually, Rosalind and Orlando are reunited in the forest -- but she's a man now, which presents a slight problem. After lots of silliness, mixed-up love matches, changes of heart, and many laughs, everything is straightened out and all ends well.

Adapted by Erica Schmidt (who conceived the musical stage version of the porn flick Debbie Does Dallas), As You Like It is blessed with a gifted sextet of actors who scurry around with energy and conviction, never getting winded and, happily, never exhausting the audience. Though director Schmidt keeps the show moving quickly -- it's under two hours, with no intermission -- she knows not to rush the more tender scenes. She even readily acknowledges the "hit" status of Jacques's melancholy "All the world's a stage" speech by bringing out the full cast to help present the revered monologue.

Lethia Nall, Bryce Dallas Howard, Drew Cortese, and(foreground) Jennifer Ikeda in As You Like It(Photo: © Michal Daniel)
Lethia Nall, Bryce Dallas Howard, Drew Cortese, and
(foreground) Jennifer Ikeda in As You Like It
(Photo: © Michal Daniel)
The acting is solid all around, but this As You Like It is more about telling the story than reveling in the beauty of the verse -- and Schmidt and company are endlessly creative in their storytelling. Clowning and athletic feats keep the action moving, a few well-chosen props and sound effects create the magical Forest of Arden, and the motley assortment of costumes (provided by Schmidt) add color to Shakespeare's world while effectively distinguishing the many different characters that the troupe must play. The ensemble's ability to handle split-second identity changes reaches its zenith in the final group scene, which involves some real precision work.

This As You Like It, with its downtown pedigree, is a great way to kick off the traditionally Shakespeare-heavy summer season. Without relying on the barrage of contemporary references and lewd gestures often employed to "modernize" Shakespeare, Schmidt and her actors offer a fresh approach to the play that is well worth seeing.