Sweet and twenty: a timeless moment in the woods

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(c) Liz Lauren

Matt Schwader plays Orlando, Kate Fry (center) is Rosalind and Chaon Cross is Celia in "As You Like It."  

Review: “As You Like It,” by William Shakespeare
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

To the inexorable swing of a towering clock’s pendulum, pretty youths love, a deposed duke awaits a better fate and a courtly fool beguiles the time in pursuit of a lusty shepherdess. All while we observers forget the hour in the enchantment of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s “As You Like It.”

Tick-tock.

Though designer Kevin Depinet’s grand, ever-present time-marker may recede to the periphery of consciousness, it’s never wholly forgotten. The specter of time hovers constantly over Shakespeare’s characters and events in this philosophical comedy. The fearful usurping duke gives Rosalind, daughter of the banished duke and dearest friend to his own daughter, a sudden deadline to be gone or be killed. The love-smitten Rosalind in turn commands her adored Orlando not to delay their next meeting by the thousandth part of a minute.

And of course, the melancholy courtier Jaques reminds his fellow fugitives that our very lives are measured out as if by some cosmic clock: We rise to an apex of vigor and achievement only to face an inevitable decline into dotage, to become mere piping shadows, sans everything.

Such is the temporal conflict beneath the frothy comedy of “As You Like It,” and director Gary Griffin, the company’s associate artistic director, paces this production to catch each reflection of time’s bending sickle, the exhilaration of its sweep as well as its weight.

Yet this play simply can’t fly – cannot suspend time – without a Rosalind and an Orlando whose mutual infatuation we buy heart and soul. Griffin’s production takes wing with Kate Fry and Matt Schwader as lovers made all of passion and impatience. Zealous, funny and fluent in Shakespeare’s language, Fry and Schwader head this cast not only by virtue of their roles, but also by example.

Like Romeo and Juliet, these outcasts love when they first behold – in this case when Rosalind sees Orlando defeat a formidable wrestler only hours before their separate fates cast them both as exiles to Arden Forest. There, dressed as a man for her safety, Rosalind meets up with Orlando, who doesn’t recognize her. Indeed, the disguised Rosalind becomes Orlando’s counselor in the art of love, and what time he doesn’t pass in her tutelage he spends scrawling love poems to her fair name and hanging these ill-footed verses on the forest trees.

Here, too, the set designer embroiders the play with imagination. Depinet’s willowy branches, festooned with Orlando’s love notes, hang long and low over the scene like the strands of a leafy love nest.

Monitoring those crazy kids is Rosalind’s pal and ever-suffering collaborator Celia, in the irresistible form of Chaon Cross. From the moment we first glimpse her, we're in the thrall of Cross’ effervescent Celia. Her sure comic timing never misses a beat. In the forest, as Rosalind draws out the unsuspecting Orlando, Cross’ agonizing reactions bring down laughter in gales.

The brilliance of these three principals carries a show that suffers elsewhere. Phillip James Brannon, as the urbane fool Touchstone, squanders one of Shakespeare’s richest comic characters. Brannon rushes through lines that need resonating space. Less funny than frantic, he well might hitch himself to the measure of that swinging pendulum overhead.

And I really don’t understand Ross Lehman’s expansive, almost exuberant take on the pensive Jaques. In Lehman’s rather preening turn, the philosopher’s interior darkness gives place to a kind of mirthful illumination – more spotlight than insight.

Through March 6. www.chicagoshakes.com. Call (312) 595-5600.