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As You Like It is one fine pudding

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Our epic wanderings over the past 23 years have included a couple of Shakespearean promenades, one outdoors at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh and another indoors at Duke Family Performance Hall during the final Royal Shakespeare Company residency up in Davidson. Compared with those, the current promenade production of As You Like It by Children's Theatre at ImaginOn is a rather sedentary affair.

Expecting to stand at the rear of the crowd or squat up front, Sue and I were surprised to find ourselves among the elders who sat on benches. Expecting an aerobic journey as we followed the actors to different lobby locations upstairs and downstairs, I wore sturdy work shoes and kept my coat on.

Neither precaution proved necessary as the company, perched upstairs outside the upper entrance to the McColl Family Theatre for the scenes at court, decamped only once, moving directly downstairs to the McColl's street level entrance for the scenes in the Forest of Arden. So strangely enough, this production directed by Matt Cosper more closely resembles Shakespearean presentations we saw at the Globe Theatre in London and at a similar space replicated at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

Both of those had a similar dearth of scenery and props, depending on actors and their costumes to drive and color the action. In essence, Cosper has turned the McColl inside-out to create a double-decker Globe, converting the numerous doors the audience usually uses to exit the theater into passageways for the actors to make their entrances. While this is done resourcefully, I wish Cosper and his talented company were given the chance to roam ImaginOn more freely. Lacking that, I'd contend that more use could have been made of the long ramp that connects the two levels -- it remains statically in the background throughout Act 2.

Yet there's a greater objection, albeit pedantic, to be lodged against the ending that comes with Cosper's abridgment of the script. Things end happily enough from a romantic perspective, with four Jacks having their four Jills, but the memo informing the forest dwellers of the cruel Duke Frederick's epiphany and reformation has evaporated. So everyone dances in blissful poverty as the comedy ends, an oxymoron in Shakespeare's Elizabethan value system.

While inflicting such rude assaults on authenticity, Cosper does astounding work with his mostly-teen cast, making no compromises with the Bard's thicket of pentameters and nearly always making it work. At the core of this victory are Kayla Carter and Will Davis as the romantic leads, Rosalind and Orlando. In perhaps the first As You Like It to eschew fight choreography, Davis emerges as an earnest dreamboat of a champion, and Carter balances girlish infatuation and noble elegance without a trace of incongruity or effort.

Other teen wonders include Erin Johnson as Celia, Rosalind's self-sacrificing best friend; and the odd couple who complete a comical love triangle when Rosalind disguises herself as a man, Rachel Tate as Phoebe and Mark Schledzewski as William. Tate is ridiculously equine throwing herself at Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede), and Schledzewski is equally equine in his pathetic adulation of Phoebe. No doubt Alexander Gagne will have successful stage outings in the near future, but here he and Cosper seem to wrestle frantically with the comedy of Touchstone, Celia's clown, finding it an insoluble riddle.

The two adults in the cast are deftly deployed. Jef Bailey goes from tempestuous despot to woodland hippie guru in dual roles as Duke Frederick and his banished brother, while Barney Baggett starts off as Orlando's sickly old mentor Adam, conveniently dies on the way to the wood, and re-emerges as a starchily cheerless Jacques, complete with "Seven Ages of Man" soliloquy.

If proof is to be found in the involvement of both young and old in Shakespeare's comedy and romance, then this Children's Theatre edition of As You Like It is one fine pudding. Amiens and Hymen, among others, have been discreetly cut from the script, and all lyrics are hereby excommunicated, but the trimmed result is justifying its title in live performance.

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