All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exists and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts…

–       As You Like It, Shakespeare


It is difficult to fathom a mere 10 minutes into the start of the Act I, that As You Like It is to be one of Shakespeare’s most joyous comedies. Toiling in servitude, the young Orlando wipes his brow, briefly refreshes his parched palate with a beverage, only to then become entrapped in a vicious brawl with his older brother Oliver, where he must defend his life, his namesake, and demand what is rightfully his. The beginning of UNC School of the Art’s production of As You Like It is laced with greed, jealousy, and betrayal. All of which, however, as the story unfolds, are twisted and turned into festive exuberance and nuptial glee.

The intentionally discombobulating premise follows the disguised and banished Rosalind, the tormented yet love struck Orlando, and some 20 other characters as a series of adventures ensue in the forest of Arden. Along the way, mistaken identities, gender-bending courtships, and a great deal of scheming all take shape among the trees.

The cast excellently performed material that in any other hands could appear disjointed and muddy. In many ways the play belongs to Rosalind, played beautifully by Elizabeth Lali. She was able to dominate the production with a character that was fully realized and complex. Kyle Habberstad was sincere and passionate as the at times impetuous Orlando.

Special praise must be given to Kevin Carillo as the animated “fool.” Carillo was able to highlight the incredible wisdom and depth of a character that is much more than what meets the eye. Bobby Allan contributed greatly to the production as Amiens, but especially for his original musical pieces. His tenor voice and acoustic guitar elevated the sentiment and revelry of many scenes.

Guest director Susan Fenichell was able to capture an authenticity of spirit only revealed when there is a literal as well as metaphoric stripping away of materials that comprise one’s identity. In this setting, a woman is able to assert herself unapologetically just as a man, a jester can be profound, and the contemptuous can be forgiving. Emancipated from the conditions of titles, sex, class, and social decorum, the characters are able to discover themselves and connect with one another.

This principle was continued with Sarah E. Escarraz’s smartly simplistic set design. The enchantment of the forest was symbolized by three large, abstract metallic structures cascading from the grid ceiling above. With the exception of only a few other embellishments, the stage was owned entirely by the shimmering formations implying trees and empty space. The Arena Theatre is generous in this regard, so the actors are able to frolic and execute fight chorography without inhibition. Speaking of which, Dale Girard has brilliantly outdone himself as the fight director. The highly physical acrobatics, meticulously maneuvered, build an excitement and intensity that enriches the play.

The production was spectacular at conveying how the most dynamic of transformations can arise when given the freedom to redefine and expose one’s self. For the cast of players in this production, the Forest of Arden provided this opportunity, and every moment along the way was nothing short a delight.

As You Like It continues through Sunday, April 6. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.