Slightly Askew's Ozarks Musical Version of As You Like It Might Be the Best Valentine's Date in Town 

Shakespeare goes to the Ozarks — and the results are magical.

Photo by Joey Rumpell

Shakespeare goes to the Ozarks — and the results are magical.

You get two kinds of Shakespeare in St. Louis. Traditional, in doublet and hose, and conceptual, in which the director has a personal vision that breaks the play out of the 17th century and sets it loose in a new time and place. I'll take it either way — there's never enough Shakespeare on stage for my liking — but I've grown to prefer the conceptual productions, because they always end up feeling more human and alive.

Ellie Schwetye's adaptation of As You Like It for Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble takes a few liberties with the old comedy, moving the Forest of Arden to the Missouri Ozarks in 1929. Her vision is also a musical one, with the better-known monologues in the play becoming period-perfect songs played live by the cast (and ringer Jason Scroggins of the Foggy Memory Boys). It's a fizzy and funny show that whizzes by in 100 minutes of comedy, romance and silvery wit. There might not be a better Valentine's Day date in town.

Schwetye has streamlined the plot, focusing less on the war between two dukes and more on the multiple romances that spark into life. Orlando (Kevin Minor) is a wealthy young man whose older brother, Oliver (Will Bonfiglio), is denying him his inheritance. Orlando wins a wrestling match to prove his worth (a stylized dance performed with Rachel Hanks as the champion wrestler, Charles) and also wins the heart of young Rosalind (Cara Barresi). She's the daughter of a banished duke, and, with her cousin Celia (Kate Donnelly), is being held hostage at court.

But Rosalind is soon banished, too. With Celia, she runs away to the forest to live with Rosalind's father. Orlando soon follows, unaware that Rosalind has disguised herself as a young man for safety. Once everybody's in the woods, romance blossoms everywhere.

Schwetye and Bess Moynihan together designed the magical forest setting, which includes real trees, a cabin, strings of lights and a star projector that brilliantly illuminates the high ceiling at the Chapel, the space where this production is being staged. Elizabeth Henning's costumes are a mix of rural work clothes for the native foresters and posh-preppy styles for the nobles — imagine the chicest episode of Hee-Haw and you're in the ballpark.

Barresi and Minor make a fine pair, even with Barresi disguised as a boy. She's all tough talk to his face but a moon-eyed girl when he leaves, which makes Donnelly's Celia mock her lovingly. Donnelly has a gift for both the dialogue and the comedy, at one point winning a big laugh with nothing more than a swift exit, while Minor is every bit the fainting lover, and masterful with the language. That high roof swallowed up a few lines here and there throughout the night, but never one of Minor's.

Rachel Hanks plays the melancholy Jacques ably, even when she isn’t speaking. The cast sits in a group at stage left when they're not in a scene, swilling moonshine from mason jars and laughing softly, but never Hanks; her mouth gnarled up in a frown, she stares angrily at the sky. Only her brief encounters with the fool, Touchstone (a very keen Tonya Darabcsek), bring her out of her perpetual funk.

Hanks also gets to sing the famous "all the world's a stage" soliloquy, and she does a bang-up job. Jason Scroggins and cast are credited for the music, which is bluegrass done right — rootsy and foot-stomping. All of it emphasizes how naturally musical Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is; there's nothing forced or faulty in the marriage of dialogue and music.

In fact, the songs work so well that when a non-Shakespeare lyric pops up, it doesn't sound out of place. Chris Ware, playing the forester Silvius, sings a chorus of "Frog Went A-Courting" while wooing his Phebe (Mollie Amburgey) and immediately becomes the most likable lover on the stage. Ware has an expressive face and he knows how to use it; Phebe's rejection of him and his dogged love serve as the earthy counterpart to Rosalind and Orlando's noble courtship.

Orlando and Rosalind may get the speeches, but Silvius and Phebe get the music, as when Ware brings down the house with a rip-snorting performance of what sounds like an original song to his brown-eyed girl (the chorus is "you can't go home again"). This is a show for lovers of all ages, and people of all kinds — hence the title.

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