Credit: Teresa Wood

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As frivolity masquerading as philosophy has created its most dire consequences yet for our waning empire, the Folger Theatre is revisiting a comedy wherein philosophy masquerades as frivolity. The players even wear masks for a lot of it.

As You Like It, the soothing sylvan romance built around William Shakespeare’s most complex heroine, is all about love among exiles. Orlando, the kind, strong younger brother of the cruel Oliver, pines for the brilliant Rosalind, daughter of a banished duke. The feeling is mutual, kind of: Rosalind joins up with Orlando in the guise of a boy, Ganymede, and she sustains the ruse for as long as it takes her to help Orlando mature his Romeo-style self-abnegating devotion into something more generous and durable. If she weren’t so much more contemplative (and talkative) than he—or than any other woman Shakespeare ever imagined, certainly in any of his comedies—it might be fair to call her the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl Pretending to Be a Boy (and in Elizabethan times, played by one, naturally.) She even gets Orlando to stop vandalizing trees with his shitty poetry. That’s a clear win for conservationists regardless of whether they care if this doofus ever grows up.

Rosalind’s expressive genius is right there on the page; Orlando seems smarter or dumber depending on who’s playing the role. That’s why Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s Hudson Valley Shakespeare production from last summer—at least the version of it that’s been exported to the Folger, which retains composer Heather Christian’s boisterous songs and Charlotte Palmer-Lee’s modern costumes but has beenlargely recast—sometimes feels a little wispy. This despite the fact Upchurch has found a worthy Rosalind in Lindsay Alexandra Carter; she’s game and gamine and misses nothing. But Lorenzo Roberts’ Orlando never seems to evolve beyond the loveable naif he is when he begins his walkabout in the Forest of Arden, which deprives us of the idea of love as a catalyst for emotional growth.

Absent that, the play becomes a mere trifle, albeit one that offers plenty to amuse. Tom Story’s weathered performance as JaquesAaron Krohn’s plaid-suited-and-bowtied fool Touchstone or even Antoinette Robinson’s perpetually side-eyeing CeliaRobinson alone reprises her role from the Hudson Valley production; I’d happily come back for one that featured her as Rosalind and Carter as Celia.

Apart from the conventional cross-dressing hijinks, there’s very little plot in As You Like It. As James Shapiro wrote in his book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, the play’s subject is “the distance between artificial poetry and genuine intimacy.” This production’s artificial poetry is very good. 

At the Folger Theatre to March 5. 201 East Capitol St. SE. $35-$75. (202) 544-4600. folger.edu.