A solitary young man saunters on stage, playing the fiddle. Through the audience ambles another young musician, also playing a stringed instrument. Soon, they are joined by a strumming guitarist.
The three play together on stage, smiling and nodding toward each other.
A moment more passes, and suddenly the stage is flooded by a dozen or so students who erupt in a joyful choreographed rendition of the song “The Book of Love.”
It’s not the opening one might expect for William Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It,” but it sets a warm, companionable tone for an exuberant, sincere and at times introspective production by Port Townsend High School students.
Directed by Jennifer Nielsen, the 1850s Western-flavored production, peppered with popular songs evoking that era, features a cast of young men and women who sing and soliloquizing their way through a dry, hot desert that is a very long distance away from the sylvan grove in which the original work was set.
“As You Like It” centers on a young woman named Rosalind who, accompanied by both her cousin and the court’s fool, flees persecution from her aunt by disguising herself as a boy. In the forest, or, in this case, desert of Arden, she finds love in the form of Orlando, who is busy fleeing an evil brother.
On opening night, many of the actors took just a moment to ease into their roles. Bodie Labrie, playing Orlando, opened the show after the introductory musical number. His entrance was somewhat subdued, but after a few moments, he stamps his foot and, voilà, he’s suddenly an impassioned Orlando. Labrie makes an especially smooth transition from aggressive fighter to languishing, and at one point comically speechless, lover.
(A side note about the fight scenes: They were well choreographed and believable. One could feel the audience holding its breath at times, especially when LaBrie slams another actor to the ground. Props to Tomoki Sage for the stage combat choreography.)
Cece Nielsen plays a reserved, radiant Rosalind, and she especially shone in scenes where, dressed as a boy, she strategically woos an unsuspecting Orlando. The delivery of her more comedic lines was well timed and well executed and earned appreciative chuckles from the audience.
As Rosalind’s cousin Celia, Galia Roman was a natural on stage and stole the show with her solo “Dream Lover.” She gave a flawless eye roll for every one of Nielsen’s bashful smiles.
Pierre Ballou, playing the court fool, Touchstone, moved like a marionette with fluid gestures that accompanied every word he spoke. His delivery was mostly in a monotone, but the humor shone through despite, or perhaps because of, the subtle modulation of voice.
Playing Jaques or, in this case, Jacqueline, Sorina Johnston offered a poignant performance of the melancholy traveler. She sang a sorrowful but beautiful rendition of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” but beamed with happiness during scenes where, taking a break from her character, she played guitar with the band on stage.
Finn O’Donnell plays an evil, sometimes blundering Oliver, and Kathrine Eldridge, a fretful Duchess Frederick. Violet Moell, as Phoebe, gave a well-timed slap in the face to a pining Silvius, played by Odin Smith. Cyan Adams, wearing a white wig, was strong in the roles of Adam and Corin, carrying many a scene. Zinnia Hansen gave a withering stare as Sir Oliver Martext; Brooke Hageman played teasing, taunting Audrey; and Nylah Garling, a pensive, eloquent Duchess Senior. Many of the actors appeared in multiple roles.
A review of the cast would not be complete without a shout-out to the spiky green cactus that felt like a familiar character by the end of the play, watching over the stage with its hundreds of prickles, which turned out to be quite useful when it came to finding a place to put a love letter.
The set itself, featuring the interior and exterior of a large townhouse, was colossal and impressive, and scene changes were done mostly without a hitch, though there were some held breaths in the audience as the large structures were being moved by the students.
While the play was quite long, especially with the addition of all the musical numbers, and a few of the scenes felt a bit lackluster, most notably the finale in which everything is explained, most of the the interactions between the students on stage resulted in gems of theatrical moments. It was impossible not to detect the joy, and pride, on these young thespians’ faces as they shared their work with the audience, and the production highlighted the many talents of the students.
The opening and closing full-dance numbers – kudos to Nielsen and LaBrie for the great partner dancing and also to a heartwarming interlude of whistling – were especially exuberant. Credit to composer and adapter Linda Dowdell and dance choreographer Angela Gyurko.
One of the best moments in the play came just before intermission. The scene was designed to bring the audience up to date on who is doing what and introduce a few new characters. Accompanied by piano music, actors came on and off the stage in different groups, miming their parts – one character wanders around, lost; lovers chase after each other; a fretful woman paces, her hair coming undone. At the end of the scene, Johnston, as Jacqueline, runs on stage, shrugging her shoulders as if to ask, “What the heck is going on right now?”
The scene was well orchestrated, well timed and very well executed on opening night.
“As You Like It” will warm your heart with its enthusiasm and hot desert air (which, unfortunately, didn’t drift far into the rather chilly auditorium on opening night). And, as Rosalind quips at the end, “Like as much of this play as you please.”
Performances are 7 p.m. May 11, 12, 18 and 19 at the Port Townsend High School auditorium, 1500 Van Ness St. A matinee on Mother’s Day, May 13 will start at 2:30 p.m. Admission prices range from $10 for adults to $3 for children 12 and younger. All proceeds fund future productions at PTHS.