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THEATER: Will you still ‘Like It’ now?

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It's got eye-popping sets, fabulous costumes, mind-blowing special effects and acting that'll knock your socks off! It's loaded with snappy new music and Busby Berkeley production numbers that'll get your toes a-tappin' and your heart a-thumpin'! It's the one, the only, Shakespeare Theatre Company's Hollywood-style production of Billy Shakespeare's bodaciously wacky hayseed comedy "As You Like It"!

And it's … it's … well, it's a mixed bag.

Director Maria Aitken reboots this classic play as a filmic pageant of the American myth, Hollywood-style. An immigrant herself, Miss Aitken regards her exuberant concept as her "love letter to America." Indeed it is. Commencing with a silent-movie pantomime, the action pans from Puritan England to the New World, from the American Revolution to the Civil War to the era of flappers and philosophers.

Along the way, the characters update period costumes and accents, taking the oddball character Jacques' famous line "All the world's a stage" to heart. But capturing the spirit of Shakespeare and his ur-feminist heroine Rosalind is another story.

"As You Like It" is a comedy of mistaken identities and human foibles. In the beginning, our heroes and heroines are deeply wronged by an evil duke and a nasty older brother and are driven into exile in the far-off wilds of Arden. In the end, various couples find true love while the old duke finds religion.

Central to the fun is feisty Rosalind. Disguising herself as a youth, she tricks her would-be lover, Orlando, into practicing his lines on her, leading to comic intrigue.

Unfortunately, the story line runs into problems in this production. Shakespeare's fast-paced archaic English, easily understood by regulars, can be tough to grasp for the less experienced. Trotting this dialogue through "Gone With the Wind" Southern accents and cowboy twangs renders chunks of it unintelligible.

More problematic is the sheer passion of the directorial concept. Paradoxically, Shakespeare's lively characters often vanish amid the sheer brilliance of Miss Aitken's imagination, becoming, at times, mere props that assume the look and feel of various Hollywood legends.

That's too bad, because the cast members really give it their best shot. Chief among them is Francesca Faridany, whose kinetic, Jodie Foster-coiffed Rosalind ably propels the revels. Equally adept is her Orlando, John Behlmann, whose manly good will shines through no matter where he is in time.

Other hat tips go to Miriam Silverman as Celia, Rosalind's loyal friend; Mark Capri in the dual roles of the good and bad dukes; Andrew Long as the enigmatic Jacques, whose brief iteration as a peyote-button-popping Timothy Leary-Hunter Thompson look-alike animates the Wild West scenario; Aubrey Deeker and Anjali Bhimani as Silvius and Phoebe, a pair of romantically maladjusted country bumpkins; and Floyd King's malleable Touchstone, who gets to impersonate W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx.

With Derek McLane's fantastic sets, Martin Pakledinaz's sumptuous costumes and Michael John LaChiusa's puckish score, the Shakespeare Theatre's "As You Like It" will delight those seeking a visually exciting and energetic theatrical night on the town. Die-hard Shakespeare fans, though, even adventurous ones, may leave the theater feeling grumpy.

★★
WHAT: William Shakespeare's "As You Like It"
WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 20. Additional performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 and 15 and noon Dec. 16. There is no evening performance Dec. 13.
TICKETS: $20 to $82
PHONE: 202/547-1122
WEB: www.shakespearetheatre.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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