Melbourne Fringe: As You Like It

Spark_As You Like ItAs You Like It is Shakespeare’s most luminous pastoral, anchored by his most charming creation. Fair Rosalind is by far the playwright’s wittiest female character, and in this regard gives even Falstaff a run for his money.

All productions of the play live or die on the casting of this role, as Spark Theatre Company’s new production for Melbourne Fringe can attest. Wendy Bos is superb; fixated yet mutable, she has a cajoling, winning presence and is almost single-handedly responsible for the show’s success.

The plot is a glorious contrivance. Orlando (Michael Wahr, also very good) escapes his harsh brother Oliver (Rob Gaetano) by escaping into the forest of Arden, but not before a wrestling match wins over the affections of Rosalind and her cousin Celia (Sarah Brett). When Rosalind is banished by Celia’s father, Duke Frederick (Benji Groenewegen), Rosalind and Celia decide to follow Orlando into the woods, with Rosalind disguised as a young man, Ganymede. For good measure, they take the court fool Touchstone (Perri Cummings) with them.

When the girls meet Orlando in the forest, and discover he is hopelessly in love with Rosalind, she as Ganymede contrives to rid him of his affection, although really she means to tease and test it. ‘I will cure you, if you would but call me Rosalind and come every day to my cote and woo me.’ A series of lightening-fast debates on the nature of love and gender follows, bringing the lovers emotionally closer while driving them rhetorically apart.

Director Perri Cummings cuts the play down to two hours without an interval, making the subplot of Rosalind’s father Duke Senior (Ben Noble) and his entourage frankly incomprehensible, but sharpening the focus on the central lovers. The other pair of lovers in the play, Phoebe (Katharine Innes) and Silvius (James Gand-Hunt), are also well played. Innes haughty ambivalence is a perfect foil for Gand-Hunt’s goofy devotion.

Performances are wildly uneven, and the gender swapping of Jaques (Kristina Benton) and Touchstone is almost fatally misguided. In a play that has so many opportunities for gender subversion, this ham-fisted attempt to inject contemporary resonance comes across as desperate. The muted performance of the actors in these roles doesn’t help, and the memorable ‘seven stages’ speeches are a let down.

The performance works best when it plays a straight bat, as it were. The unusual playing space is well handled and the design (Jaz Tweeddale and Cassandra Storm) elegant. The music (Kristina Benton) is intrusive and irritating for the most part, but does have a lovely payoff in the final moments.

Bos and Wahr bring so much charm and skill to the roles of Rosalind and Orlando that the play manages to move as much as it amuses, and there is a delicate spiritual quality to the final scenes. All in all, it’s a charming and entertaining night in the theatre, and one to catch.

Director: Perri Cummings  Cast: Michael Wahr, Rob Gaetano, Phil Zachariah, Wendy Bos, Sarah Brett, Perri Cummings, Sam EEO, Benji Groenewegen, Ben Noble, Kristina Benton, Wayne Tunks, James Gand-Hunt, Katharine Inns, Jennifer Monk  Production and Costume Designer: Jaz Tweeddale  Assistant Costume Designer: Cassandra Storm  Lighting Designer: Ed Chia  Musical Director: Kristina Benton  Voice Coach: Anna Baulk  Choreographer: Kristen Adriaan  Fight Choreographer: Felicity Steel

As You Like It
Brunswick Arts Space, 2a Little Breeze Street, Brunswick
Performance: Thursday 25 September 2014 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 5 October 2014
Information and Bookings: www.melbournefringe.com.au

Image: courtesy of Spark Theatre Company

Review: Tim Byrne

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