As You Like It, Chicago Shakespeare Theater. David H. Bell sets his production in imperial Russia, a choice that makes Shakespeare's comedy darker and more beautiful than it is in most renditions. The Duke's praise of life in the Forest of Arden illustrates his nobility, not the forest's charm: it's snowing, and people are sleeping on the ground. Exile here is serious, requiring the central characters to learn about themselves before they can begin to learn about each other or love. Rosalind (the splendid Elizabeth Laidlaw) discovers her own resourcefulness while Orlando (Timothy Gregory, giving depth to a character who can easily seem cardboard) finds out how rapidly he can turn savage. These tasks accomplished in the first act, the lovers have earned the romantic comedy of the second--which is as comic and romantic as one could wish.
The designs--particularly James Leonard Joy's set and Mariann Verheyen's costumes--bring Bell's vision to life, and Henry Marsh's music (especially as sung by Howie Smith) injects some Russian-style vigor and gravity into the hey-nonny-nonnies. Standouts among the excellent supporting cast are Ian Brennan as the shepherd Silvius and Saxon Palmer as the fool Touchstone, each refusing to condescend to his character. Greg Vinkler manages to reinvent the melancholy Jacques, making him the voice of reason rather than the traditional laughingstock and even introducing an unexpected romantic moment. The veterans do well, but it's good to see so many newcomers at Chicago Shakespeare too.