The first thing to remember about the production of Shakespeare's classic pastoral comedy As You Like It, currently running at Baruch's Bernie West Theater, is that it is performed entirely by acting students. Accordingly, there is a fair amount of line rushing, half-considered scanscion, and gesture acting. Yet beyond those (for a student production) forgivable offenses, there are also many daring and effective choices in place, courtesy of the actors and production team, making this a worthwhile evening of theater.
As You Like It is the story of star-crossed love between Orlando (Jake Minevich) and Rosalind (Elissa Klie), daughter of the exiled Duke Senior (Goran Ivanovski). When Orlando is banished by the usurper Duke Frederick (William McGregor King), he flees to the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind's father lives in exile. With the help of her best gal-pal, Celia (Grace Langstaff), who also happens to be Duke Frederick's daughter, Rosalind pursues Orlando into the forest disguised as a boy. (Shakespeare loved female-to-male drag.) After a good deal of cat-and-mouse and homoerotic mistaken identity, the whole thing is wrapped up by Frederick's abdication and a quadruple marriage.
Shakespeare has sprinkled diversions throughout the play that have little to do with the thin plot, but are a lot of fun nonetheless. Director Thomas G. Waites and his actors take full advantage of these moments.
Seemingly chiseled out of marble, Giovanni Roselli turns in a convincing performance as the wrestler Charles, mugging for the audience and stomping around the stage like a WWE wrestler. His fight scenes with Minevich are a highlight, giving the much-abused stage-left wall of the Bernie West theater quite a workout.
Ilaria Malvezzi plays Orlando's brother, the melancholic Jacques, with a distinctly sexual flair. While her heavy Italian accent often obscures her lines, including the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech, she leaves little room for confusion in her committed body language and thrilling dance performances.
Her movements are underscored (as is most of the play) by the steady hand of percussionist and vocalist Cedric Allen Hills, who plays the minor role of Amiens, but clocks in more stage time than any other actor. He is ever present, drumming up the tension of a scene or leading the cast in song.
While this original music adds more to the play than it detracts, it is occasionally confusing. Waites has set this production in the 1960s, with the actors as flower children of the Forest of Arden. Peasant dresses, headbands, and ponchos abound. When Hills sings the Forester's Act IV, Scene II song about a successful hunt ("The horn, the horn, the lusty horn/Is not a thing to laugh to scorn.") as several actors dig into a fallen deer, it conjures images of the Manson family rather than the happy-go-lucky hippies in Hair.
Of course, all of this is a work-in-progress and there is no better way to learn than to do. That is why it is a rare gift that Waites gives his students: four weekends playing off-off-Broadway. The performances will undoubtedly tighten and clarify as the run progresses. It's worth a walk in the woods.