Love is in the air during Tour 66 of the National Players with their second of three touring productions, “As You Like It,” at the Olney Theatre Center.
Shakespeare’s pastoral romance follows several young potential couples, running away from their families and finding solace — and love — in the Forest of Arden.
“It’s a play that celebrates the simplicity in life and a return to basic human instinct and human interaction,” said director Gus Heagerty. “There’s a spirit in the play that is celebratory of our natural inclination to be liberated from gender, sexuality, ties to status. Those themes are very potent right now.”
Orlando’s older brother Oliver has become head of the house, and his dislike for Orlando and plans to kill him encourage the younger sibling to flee to the forest. Rosalind, daughter of Duke Senior recently ousted and replaced by his brother Duke Frederick, worries for her safety staying with her uncle. She also escapes to the woods, taking her cousin Celia — the duke’s daughter — with her in the process.
“She’s extremely witty, very smart and headstrong and has a little bit of a problem with authority,” said Shakiera Sarai, who plays Rosalind. “I think she should be every little girl’s hero.”
After leaving home, Rosalind and Celia don secret identities and take on pseudonyms to ensure their safety — Rosalind becomes a young man named Ganymede, while Celia acts as a shepherdess named Aliena. While disguised, they encounter several people, including Orlando.
Rosalind and Orlando met briefly before at her uncle’s court, and the connection was immediate. Now that Rosalind appears as a young man, she guides Orlando toward strengthening his affections by saying “he” is well-versed in curing those in love, and the cure comes from wooing Rosalind as if the young man is her — which she is.
“What attracts me to it is how far ahead of its time it is, that a woman’s wit and cleverness is valued highly,” Sarai said. “The relationship’s strength lies in how equal it is, and that both have to grow and mature and step forward, and ask a lot of each other in the way of equals.”
Orlando has sought love before with little luck, lending itself to why he falls so hard for Rosalind. Through his time in the forest, he gains confidence and lets go — and by saving Oliver from a lioness in the forest, mends his family relationships as well.
“As soon as he stops thinking and chooses to trust the universe, it gives him what he wants,” said Adam Donovan, who plays Orlando. “For myself, to let go and think about how things might eventually just come to you, that’s hard to trust.”
The main characters are mostly teenagers and young adults, and are played by such. For Donovan, the similarity helped him better understand connect with his character.
“I was speaking with someone about the challenges of playing some significantly older that you — I think it’s been cool to have a role so close to me,” Donovan said, “that they only thing in my way is myself.”
This is the first tour with the National Players for Donovan and Sarai, but according to Heagerty it doesn’t show. The cast has been committed to the production and getting beyond the comedy on the surface.
“They are a group of actors who just do,” Heagerty said. “They don’t think too long, they don’t make excuses. They have so little time and so much work. I think that will serve them hugely in future projects. They just get things done, they’re hard workers and they do it without expecting anything in return.”
“The more we’ve worked on it, the more archaeological uncovering of pretty significant truths are mentioned that have to deal with relationships, love, fathers, tropes in love,” Donovan added. “That’s been exciting, thinking about it from ‘Oh, it’s a fun little comedy’ to uncovering some substantial nuggets of humanity.”
If Heagerty has his way, this production of “As You Like It” will leave the audience refreshed and considering the people in their lives they love and care about.
“It should be an invigorating experience to watch the play,” Heagerty said, “and should have you leave the theater charged with an energy to go be with people.”