The Theatre Memphis production of “As You Like It” is so remarkably good that the one disappointment you might encounter is finding tickets.
Director Anita “Jo” Lenhart has wrangled this Shakespearean comedy to bring out its rhythm, flavor, wit and profundity with an enormously entertaining relocation to the American Wild West.
Many productions of Shakespeare forgo Elizabethan settings and try different environments, not always successfully. But Lenhart and her cast and crew have conjured that balance between hey-nonny-nonny and hootenanny, giving truth to universal themes and the brilliance of the Bard who, as Lenhart says, “gives us words unlike any other to express these problems.”
The story opens in the oppressive court of Frederick, who, like a brutish sheriff, has banished his foes, including family, to the Forest of Arden. Most of the play takes place in the forest, where exiles mingle with the locals and romance blooms irrepressibly.
Shakespeare throws in rivalries, deceptions, witty banter and all the complexities of love. Lenhart sets it in the Dakota Territories of the American frontier in 1887 — with pistols, hicks, petticoats and attention to detail.
Carrying it off is an impressive cast all the way through. Gregory W. Boller deftly plays the evil Frederick and his good brother, Duke Senior, with alternating menace and charm. Holding the center is Miranda Lynette Fisher as Rosalind, whip smart and unwilling to let society marginalize her as a woman, even when she decides to dress as a man. Fisher is thoroughly appealing in this choice role.
Jacob Wingfield is true as the lovestruck and impulsive Orlando, while Gabe Beutel-Gunn plays brother Oliver with delicious evil.
Jillian Barron is side-splittingly funny as Audrey, the dim shepherdess; her timing and finesse make broad comedy work. The cynical Jaques is fully rounded by Stephen Huff’s sharp performance.
Lenhart notes that Shakespeare refers to accents in the play, and she puts to good use the distinctions of localisms. There’s no better example than Chris Cotten’s rural Corin, whose homespun wisdom is delivered in the deepest of Southern accents. Cotten is also one of the musicians — Davis Fancher is another — who wander the stage with mandolin, guitar and banjo to sing the songs that are often cut from other productions.
New tunes and arrangements were done by Cotten, Fancher, Lenhart, David Hammons and Zack Williams. The work and performances are first rate, adding immeasurably to the production.
Cheers also to scenic designer Jack Yates with those boxes on poles that start out as courtly columns and end up as trees in the forest. And Paul McCrae’s costumes are fine as cream gravy.
Let’s give another nod to fight choreographer Sean Carter for staging some wickedly realistic punch-outs.
“As You Like It” is a freshly conceived, fast-paced and fully engaging production, a triumph for Theatre Memphis, Jo Lenhart and the terrific cast and crew.
“As You Like It”
Through March 2 at Theatre Memphis’ Next Stage, 630 Perkins Ext.
Showtimes 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $25 adults, $15 students with valid ID, $10 children under 12
Info: 901-682-8323; theatrememphis.org.