PAWTUCKET — In choosing Shakespeare’s romantic comedy “As You Like It” to close its season, the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre continues its love affair with the Bard while bidding a warm, loving farewell to the space it has occupied for the last 15 years.
The Gamm, which will relocate to Warwick starting in the 2018-2019 season, pulls out all the stops for “As You Like It” — drawing longtime supporter and board member Sam Babbitt out of retirement for a last appearance, reconfiguring the entire performance space to be in the round, challenging traditional gender casting and incorporating some of Normand Beauregard’s finest physical training in scenes involving fights and foolishness.
The result is a performance that resonates and unfurls in the audience’s mind long after the final bows are offered. The storyline is simple enough — a young girl Rosalind and her cousin Celia flee persecution by dressing like boys and heading into the Forest of Arden. At the same time, a young man named Orlando takes to the forest to escape his brother’s harsh treatment of him. In the forest, the travelers find a stream of characters and love.
Shakespeare weaves a charming pastoral tale full of cogent and memorable speeches — “All the world’s a stage” and “Too much of a good thing” among them — while Gamm and directors Tony Estrella and Rachel Walshe elicit a whole new level of appreciation and enjoyment with a production that warms the heart and contains more than a few surprises.
One of the best surprises is the Gamm debut of Shura Baryshnikov, daughter of actress Jessica Lange and ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. A dancer, actress and choreographer living in Providence, Baryshnikov is absolutely breathtaking in the role of Orlando.
The intensity of her eyes and facial expressions underscore every line she delivers and the scene early in act one in which she physically wrestles with the taller and larger Jesse Hinson (who plays Charles and a delightful Phoebe) is unlike any other combat scene.
Undoubtedly, Gamm resident physical activity choreographer Beauregard had a lot to do with the rawness and realistic nature of the wrestling match, but Baryshnikov’s physique is exquisite and her grunts and groans at the exertion are believable.
The other delight in this production is Jeff Church’s antics as Touchstone, a court jester who accompanies Celia and Rosalind into the forest. Church is truly gifted in the act of physical comedy and in making sure it stays truly funny, not groan-worthy. He trips and slips, he bumbles and mumbles, he even involves the audience at points, which is a delightful touch.
Babbitt makes a wonderful addition to the cast as Adam, Orlando’s servant, as does Gamm regular Jeanine Kane as the grumpy lord Jacques, who opines at various points through the 2 1/2-hour production. Nora Eschenheimer is wondrous to watch as Rosalind, her facial expressions sweet and her dramatic fainting spells realistic.
“As You Like It” is a love story, both with its sweet ending, which includes the joining of multiple couples in marriage, and for the company and its long-time home. It’s a treat that’s not to be missed.