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Cal Shakes’ lively ‘As You Like It’ kicks off 2017 season

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From left, Jessika D. Williams, Maryssa Wanlass and Patrick Russell are charming in California Shakespeare Theater’s “As You Like It.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)
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There was rapture in the air on opening night of “As You Like It” at California Shakespeare Theater — and not just for the four couples who are married in Shakespeare’s comedy: by the end of Desdemona Chiang’s wise and witty production, the audience was definitely feeling the love.

Getting there is half the fun. As the play follows the beautiful Rosalind into the Forest of Arden, Shakespeare’s mix of folly and frivolity, courtship and cross-dressing, high aspirations and low humor takes the audience on an irresistible journey.

Banished from the court by her hateful uncle, Rosalind disguises herself as a man and calls herself Ganymede. With her cousin Celia and faithful fool Touchstone by her side, she flees her beloved home and enters an unexpected world of rustic enchantment.

Chiang and her cast find the deep well of feeling under this tangled, giddy meditation on love and identity, gender and destiny. The scenes in which Orlando woos Ganymede in Rosalind’s name achieve a heady, high-stakes blend of comedy and romance.

The director’s well-conceived touches are everywhere, from the opening court scenes, played against a verdant ivy wall surrounded by topiary, to the weathered wood backdrop of the forest (set design by Nina Ball), where shepherds and country lasses pass the time philosophizing, tending their flocks, and gathering for the occasional show tune or Bob Dylan song.

Jessika D. Williams, making her Cal Shakes debut, is a brilliant Rosalind — adept in Shakespeare’s mercurial language, and thoroughly at home in the role’s fast-paced physical demands. Watching her reel in Orlando as she solves the courtship problems of the subsidiary characters is pure pleasure.

Patrick Russell is likable as the lovestruck Orlando, and Maryssa Wanlass’s stalwart Celia keeps pace throughout.

As the melancholy Jacques, Jomar Tagatac delivers the “Seven Ages of Man” with more than the usual depth. Warren David Keith does a deft double turn as Touchstone and Adam, James Carpenter clearly delineates the two Dukes, and Patty Gallagher lights up the stage as the goofy shepherdess, Audrey.

Craig Marker’s Oliver, Lisa Hori-Garcia’s Phebe and William Thomas Hodgson’s Silvius enliven the proceedings.

It’s all very funny and fluid — and it bodes well for the future.

As the 2017 season opener, and the first production of new artistic director Eric Ting’s tenure, this “As You Like It” suggests that Cal Shakes is once again on firm footing.

REVIEW
As You Like It
Where: California Shakespeare Theater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes June 18
Tickets: $20 to $92
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org

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