At Valborg Theatre, Appalachian State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance performed an amusing, puppet-filled interpretation of William Shakespeare‘s As You Like It. The pastoral comedy displays bonds of romantic, familial, and friendly love that experience everything from exile, separation, and disguise to reunion, honesty, and forgiveness. Directed by Derek Gagnier, the performance harnessed the eloquence of Shakespeare, boasted the youthful energy of university theatre, and elicited laughs from the audience through the actors’ spirited delivery of humorous lines and convincing displays of emotion. 

Rather than medieval France, App State’s As You Like It is set in the 1960s, which Gagnier points out in his director’s note was a time of growing acceptance of others, increasing understandings of environmental issues, and ongoing explorations of identity. The play begins in a construction site for a luxury neighborhood, complete with small-scale scaffolding, brickwork, and wall frames. Orlando (Colin Pendergrast) is discontented with his brother, Oliver (Richard Barker), who, despite the wishes of their late father, Sir Rowland de Bois, neglects to treat him with respect and dignity. Duke Frederick (Nick Malloy) has succeeded the throne and banished his elder brother, Duke Senior (also Malloy), to the Forest of Arden. However, Duke Frederick permits his niece, Rosalind (Elonie Quick) to stay in the court because of her inseparable friendship with his daughter, Celia (Alexandra Rowland). Rosalind and Celia meet Orlando during his grueling fight with Charles (Nick Isley), one of Duke Frederick’s wrestlers. In the well-staged fight, choreographed by Gagnier with wrestling consultant Junius Underwood Faircloth, Pendergrast and Isley fully committed to their roles (successfully delivering the final blow in slow motion!), but it was the ensemble’s vitality from the warm-up rounds to Charles’ defeat that made the scene so memorable.

At this wrestling match, Rosalind and Orlando fall in love with one another immediately. Quick was so innocently bashful in her attraction and Pendergrast was so endearingly awkward in his pursuit; the duo encapsulated young love brimming with virtue and desire. Following the fight and upon learning from his servant, Adam (a puppet constructed of a mop wearing a blazer), of his brother’s plot for Charles to pummel him, Orlando flees the court for the forest. Meanwhile, Duke Frederick reverses his decision, exiling Rosalind with her father. So honestly attached to one another, Celia flees with Rosalind. Quick and Rowland charmingly conveyed this loyal friendship, rejoicing in each other’s company. The pair excitedly devised their plan to remain safe in the forest: crossdressed in a striking royal blue suit and mustache, Rosalind would assume the persona of Ganymede while Celia would become Aleina, a common shepherdess. They take court jester Touchstone (Isley) along on their journey, exiting the stage with the enthusiastic proclamation, “To liberty and not to banishment!” 

Much unfolds in the forest… too much to describe! To tease you: Duke Senior’s lords are puppet animals who sing joyous songs and Orlando joins their group in search of food for him and Adam. While common shepherd Silvius (Jaiden Campbell) pines for Phoebe (Mackenzie Boone), she falls in love with Ganymede. As Ganymede, Rosalind entreats lovesick Orlando to receive her love lessons, pretend Ganymede is Rosalind, and woo her each day. Audrey (Allison Martin), a goat herdress, falls in love with Touchstone. Isley belligerently reprimands Audrey’s other suitor, William (a puppet constructed of a broom and dress shirt). Oliver appears – Duke Frederick sent him to find his daughter, his niece, and Orlando with a threat on his land and wealth if unsuccessful – and he falls in love with Aleina. Barker is an excellent storyteller; with intonation and expert movements, he monopolized my attention as his Oliver smugly proffered Orlando’s bloody handkerchief and energetically recounted and reenacted the tale of Orlando saving Oliver from being devoured by a lioness in the forest. 

By Rosalind’s cleverness, the eventful play concludes with a quadruple wedding: Rosalind to Orlando, Celia to Oliver, Phoebe to Silvius, and Audrey to Touchstone. The chaotic yet delightful plights of the forest end in the final scene of celebration as news reaches the forest that Duke Frederick has adopted a religious life and consequently restored Duke Senior to the duchy! 

Throughout the play’s entirety, the ensemble flowed through roles of zealous wrestlers, expressive puppet animals in the forest, and playful, resenting trees on whose bark Orlando inscribed his stanzas of poetry expressing his love for Rosalind. I praise the ensemble (Martin, Destiney Wolfe, Joey Diasparra, Louis Jacobs, Barbara Zboichyk, and Abby Will) for infusing a refreshing comedic layer into the production. I am not clear on the reason for including puppets in As You Like It, especially the representation of Adam and William as dressed-up cleaning supplies when there were enough cast members to fill the roles, though, however peculiar, the puppets were very amusing!

I am impressed with the cast’s collective performance – all spoke Shakespeare’s English with ease and familiarity. And everyone seemed to truly enjoy their time on stage (which in turn made me enjoy the production that much more!). I was captivated by Quick and Rowland’s interactions. They obsessed over love together seamlessly and captured the duality of bickering honestly while empathizing with and remaining loyal to each other always. Further, Quick’s “strong” an “manly” performance as Rosalind pretending to be Ganymede, sporting a deep voice and power stances, and Rowland’s commitment to constantly assuming posh “act natural” poses strengthened their dialogue. Lastly, I was intrigued by Zoë Nagel’s portrayal of Jaques, the melancholy traveler and faithful lord of Duke Senior. Her contemplative and philosophical nonchalance in Jaques’ judgment of characters in love as fools and the monologue of life experiences ending in oblivion provokes reflection on life’s purpose, in medieval times, in the 1960s, and in the present day.

On the topic of the 60s, I adored the costume design led by Sue Williams. With Pendergrast’s denim-on-denim and striped flare pants, Isley’s flared jeans and rainbow suspenders, Quick and Rowland’s colorful 60s style dresses, and Campbell and Boone’s hippie attire and sheep slippers (because they are shepherds!), the costumes screamed 1960s. Adding to the ambiance, songs by artists including the Beatles and Bob Dylan filled the transition periods between scenes and played throughout the short intermission. 

I applaud stage manager Raquel Christiansen and technical director Matt Tyson for their oversight of the seamless performance. Led in scenic and projection design by Michael Helms and in lighting design by John Marty, set changes, especially between the opening construction site and the Forest of Arden, happened smoothly. The projection screen was incredibly successful in designating different parts of the forest through simple, nearly unnoticeable background changes. (I am curious if the scenes were drawn by students or made with AI technologies!) 

App State’s As You Like It skillfully conveyed Shakespeare’s comedic story in the Forest of Arden. Combining puppetry and the 1960s with four love stories intertwined in conflict between two sets of brothers, this play underscores the significance of acceptance. I found that this sentiment was echoed in the play’s structure: much of the plot unfolded in beginning and the end, mirroring the way in which action and acceptance are often separated with a pause of thoughtful contemplation. In the middle, the actors consider how they are each alike (or unalike) and why they like one another. Eventually, through such thought on “likeness,” all is reconciled in marriages, brotherly reunion, and forgiveness. Whether or not you are familiar with this play or the work of Shakespeare beyond whichever play was required of you in high school or college, with its lively puppets, relatable conflict, and happy ending, As You Like It is sure to make you smile and, hopefully, find greater acceptance of others.

As You Like It continues through Sunday, April 30. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.