Review: Eno River Players Production of ‘As You Like It’ Ushers in Spring

It may not yet be spring, but romance was in the air at the Durham Fruit Company this past week. The Eno River Players, under the imaginative direction of Leo Egger, staged a delightful rendition of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, As You Like It. A wonderful array of classical music executed by Spencer Adler on the cello welcomed visitors to the proceedings as if to foreshadow the upcoming nuptials. And just how will the various lovers find each other and their way to the aisle?

Before the pursuits can begin, here’s the backstory. Take two best friends, Rosalind and Celia, who are quite devoted to each other. Celia’s father, Duke Frederick, banished Rosalind’s father, Duke Senior. He permits Rosalind to remain because of the friendship with his daughter, but then changes his mind and exiles her as well, threatening bodily harm. Of course, the two girls plot to run away together.

Two other brothers also suffer from some intense sibling rivalry. Oliver plots to have Orlando suffer his demise in a wrestling match. As fate would have it, Rosalind and Orlando exchange glances, sparking the fire in both hearts. And fate also mandates that all must flee, with other faithful companions, to the Forest of Arden for safety. More importantly, fleeing allows the refugees to pursue their passions. Matters of the heart dominate the plot.

The first part of the narrative takes place on a tennis court, a visual reminder of how love is a bit of a game. Props are visible and the cast is seen getting ready for the show. The theatricality is further highlighted by the cast going through their warm-up routine. Susan Johns who plays “The Director,” enters and introduces us to the play with a tongue-in-cheek tone. The audience is asked to “play along,”, suspend judgement, and be charmed by the merriment that comes with being both observer and immersive participant.

From the outset, this troupe looks to be enjoying the experience, and that mood is infectious. Many of the major roles were convincingly performed by students from Durham School of the Arts. These students exhibited a keen sense of comedic timing while adding the right amount of teen expressiveness to the overall atmosphere. Indeed, their youthful exuberance elevated the humor of their heightened romantic affections. This was both a comic and sweet  depiction of teen romance, without pretensions or artifice; it was genuine fun to watch.

Veronica Gilligan delivered most effectively as the independent-minded Rosalind, and then quite humorously disguised as Ganymede, effectively mimicking her version of male affectations. Her rapport with Christina Boxberger’s Celia, the devoted, practical friend who is sometimes exasperated with her dear cousin’s antics, reflected a depth of real friendship between the two. And her infatuation with Zechariah Woodard’s Orlando was as endearing as his exaggerated expressions at finding himself helplessly in love with her. Woodard’s rendering of Orlando was confident and self-deprecating in equal measure; truly a standout performance from this young man. Oliver Egger was convincing as the villainous Oliver, conveying the brand of brotherly dislike that rises just because the two have grown up together.

After the initial introductory scenes, the action and audience moves to another part of The Fruit’s  warehouse to enter the playground that is the Forest of Arden. Paper streamers hang from the rafters to suggest trees and mini lights add to the whimsical atmosphere. Set Designer Jennie Alwood takes full advantage of the vast space to create an area for the characters to exercise their passionate pursuits. When not participating in the action, the actors lounge visibly on the fringe of the ‘stage’ watching events unfold, or sometimes changing costumes and preparing to join in the light-hearted fray.

And it is here that the real fun of this story lies as disguises are donned, love is declared, and conflicts, both make believe and real, are resolved. The course of love is never smooth, and is often full of comic obstacles of our own making. Much mirth ensues as the various couples explore their emotions as they ramble about the Forest of Arden.

Shakespeare’s commentary on the proceedings are made alternatively by the judgemental Jacques, played with more understated mirth than melancholy by Stephanie Minervino, and the court clown, Touchstone, played quite broadly by Victoria Christian. Other adult members of the cast delivering notable performances included Pamela Alberda, first as the loyal servant of Orlando and later as the courtier, Amiens, and Daniel Egger, who assumed the roles of both Dukes.

Many members of this large cast assumed multiple roles and each worked diligently to make their character distinctive in some way. The various couples were engaging and humorous in their antics, adding to the lighthearted tone.

What is most interesting about this depiction of Shakespeare’s play was Egger’s emphasis on breaking the fourth wall with repeated interruptions by “The Director” to offer both interpretation of the action as well as to intrude with directions for the actors. While humorous, it is almost with relief when Rosalind’s actor insists that it is the actors turn on stage now.

Yet Egger successfully taps into the playful essence of this romantic tale that explores the vagaries of love, the emotion that prompts the complex response of giddiness and despair. He allows the actors to revel in the activities of the natural world and invited the audience to be a part of the pretense as well, offering a much-needed escape from an all too serious world. It will be interesting to see what show this company tackles next.

The Eno Rivers Players production of As You Like It closed. For more information about the company and upcoming production, however, visithttps://www.enoriverplayers.org/.

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