Because cross-dressing wasn't perfected until the ascent of RuPaul, you have to wonder at the suspension of disbelief required in Shakespeare's day. In the Shakespearean canon, it seems, a woman (or the prepubescent boy playing a woman, since females were barred in England from appearing on a public stage until 1660) has to do little more than put on a pair of pants and everyone around her will be immediately convinced she's a man. That's how Rosalind does it in As You Like It, anyway.
Maybe that was enough to spark convulsions of laughter among the assembled masses back in the day, but to pull off this evergreen comedy classic in the modern era takes more than a pair of pants. And it's not just the cross-dressing: everything about this complicated comedy is a challenge. But Shakespeare Orange County nails it. Director Carl Reggardio approaches the play without irony, updating or deconstruction and pulls off a complete triumph.
The backbone of any As You Like It is Rosalind. A weak Rosalind—one dimensional or unskilled—makes for a long night. But Elizabeth Taheri is perfectly suited to ascend Shakespeare's Mount Everest of female comedic roles. Her Rosalind is a heroine full of bravado who nonetheless faints at the sight of blood. The sheer memorization required for the part is staggering, yet Taheri charges ahead at full throttle, Elizabethan-word-perfect and bursting with energy in every scene. As her lovestruck suitor, Orlando, David Denman also does fine work, including some well-staged wrestling. Perhaps the most impressive performer in an outstanding cast is Daniel Bryan Cartmell; his Jaques, a nobleman in exile, displays natural aplomb, especially in tossing off the difficult, theatrical "All the world's a stage" speech in between bites of his dinner; his superb voice seems to have been aged in a barrel. Another standout, Marchelle Mallari as Phebe, a woman mistakenly in love with another woman, electrifies the stage with every move. Her fiercely committed performance also wrings the biggest laughs from the material.
This elegantly staged production breezes smoothly through many settings. The terrific production values include lavish period costumes, and several cast members demonstrate excellent musical talents. You'll likely like this As You Like It.
As You Like It by Shakespeare Orange County at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre, 301 E. Palm Ave., Orange, (714) 744-7016. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Through Aug. 11. $25.