As You Like It

Burning Coal at Murphey School Auditorium
Through Dec. 16

You can make the case that Shakespeare pioneered both the romantic comedy and the musical comedy with As You Like It, the light-hearted pastoral romp that’s been in production for, oh, about 400 years now. With its sprightly mix of song, witty wordplay and amorous plans gone awry, it’s a perennial crowd pleaser.

Burning Coal‘s new production preserves the play’s featherweight tone. Aside from the contemporary updates to costuming and contexts, there are no agendas or sub-frequencies here. Couples meet in the woods, banter and swoon, and get married on the morrow.

The story: Young maiden Rosalind, daughter of the exiled Duke Senior, flees to the Forest of Arden when she’s banished by her uncle, the usurping Duke Frederick. CeliaFrederick’s daughter and Rosalind’s BFFjoins her cousin in exile, along with court jester Touchstone. Away from the suffocating intrigues of court life, the ladies find love with Orlando and Oliver, brothers with their own percolating family drama. Touchstone the clown finds a girl, too, while a dozen or so supporting characters dart in and out, celebrating the freedom of forest life.

Director Mark Sutch navigates the busy story via nimble stagecraft, as the seven ensemble players assume 22 speaking roles between them. The playful costume design by Jane Alois Stein provides the signifiers we needa regal kimono, a hobo army jacket, a ragged coat with patchwork motley.

The set design is equally minimal and deft. Two nested four-post platforms and a modular back wall are constantly tweaked to represent a forest glade or a wrestling ring. Music is provided onstage by the players themselves, by way of guitars, harmonica and drums.

The ensemble works together well, and Rebecca Bossen, in particular, gives a lovely performance as Rosalind. As You Like It is packed with gender switching and doubled roles, and at one point Bossen is playing a girl pretending to be a boy posing as a girl, courting a boy. It’s no mean feat, because despite the best efforts of the cast and creative team, the story can be very hard to follow. Not so much on the beat-by-beat levelmost of the jokes land, and the individual scenes work fine. But plot points get lost in the shuffle, and confusion is a constant peril with this kind of cast-to-character ratio.

If you’re not fairly familiar with the play already, I suggest reading up on As You Like It before attending. It’s easier to appreciate the skillful stagecraft when you’re not playing who’s-who in your head. It’ll also free up some bandwidth to register all that mischievous and musical language, set alight once again.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Season’s greetings and hellish holidays.”