Betsy Ladyzhets trekked uptown to watch Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the Lenfest Center, the third of this spring’s MFA directing thesis productions, and was not disappointed.

As You Like It exemplifies Shakespeare at his most romantic and his most confusing. The play presents no fewer than four romances, all of which are tested through rhetoric, gimmicks, and disguises which question how one can be sure one is in love, and if love has any value to begin with. The cast of this weekend’s production, put on by the Columbia School of the Arts up at the Lenfest Center (as the directing thesis of Mikhaela Mahony), navigates these tests and questions with brilliant acting and physical comedy, and brings the play to a four-wedding conclusion which makes this cold campus feel like spring has arrived at last.

To borrow a piece of my summary from the last time I reviewed a production of As You Like It for Bwog, this play is a romantic drama under the guise of a political drama. It begins at court: Orlando (Gregory Hermann), the youngest son of the late Sir Rowland de Boys, is exiled by his older brother, and Rosalind (Lee Havlicek), daughter and heir of Duke Senior, is exiled by her uncle (who has usurped her father’s throne). Both characters escape to the Forest of Arden — but not before meeting and falling in love. In the Forest, the play becomes a pastoral comedy; Rosalind dresses as a man and plays with Orlando to test his love, while three other romances develop between exiled nobles, courtiers, and Forest shepherds.

The heart of this play is in the complex, deeply ironic courtship between Rosalind and Orlando, and actors Havlicek and Hermann were wholly up to the task. Havlicek’s Rosalind began as polite, yet passionate, then became bolder as she donned her disguise until she was practically directing the story from inside it at the play’s conclusion. Hermann’s Orlando, meanwhile, began the play as ambitious and fierce, then learned modesty as he was asked again and again to convince Rosalind of his love. And there was chemistry between the two actors from the moment they locked eyes in Act I, heightened by stage directions which had the characters move closer, then stand parallel to one another. As their courtship progressed, Havlicek and Hermann added physicality to Shakespeare’s text with ice-skating, play-fighting, and moments of intimacy that showed the clear affection between their characters. (Also, some meaningful glances from Hermann suggested that Orlando had identified Rosalind behind her disguise, which I found added sincerity to the romance.)

Exaggerated physicality was a key component of this production, as all of the actors used the stage and their bodies to draw meaning from and heighten the comedy of Shakespeare’s text. Two actors who exemplified this strategy were Al Pagano and Alton Alburo, who played the romance between Touchstone (exiled court jester) and Audrey (shepherdess) as a gay relationship. Alburo’s Audrey, who rocked high heels and layers of shiny jackets, was charming from his first appearance, and Pagano’s Touchstone was a fast-talking fool well aware of his flaws. The scene in which Touchstone shouted a passionate defense of his love for Audrey (supplemented by Pagano through punctuated jumping down levels of the stage and intense pointing) was one of my favorites of the production. The relationship between Sylvius (Patrick Dunning) and Phoebe (Tamara Geisler) was also a highlight; their exaggerated facial expressions and gestures made the comedic Sylvius-chases-Phoebe, Phoebe-chases-Ganymede plot even more ridiculous.

The setting and props of this As You Like It served as an extension of its actors’ physicality, creating an engrossing setting with ample comedic potential. The Lenfest Center stage was set up with risers at the back and a balcony running along the top; the actors frequently ran up and down the stairs, shouted at each other from across the balcony, and (in one memorable scene) hid beneath the risers. The actors began the show, in fact, by sitting on red folding chairs on the risers, appearing to be spectators who suddenly descended onto the stage and became actors. (“All the world’s a stage.”) These folding chairs were a court setting in Act I, but then, when the setting shifted, the actors picked all these chairs up, shuffled them in mid-air, and finally held them up to reveal a message printed in letters affixed beneath the chair’s seats: “The FOREST of ARDEN.” These chairs came in handy later as various characters used them to externalize important messages. Orlando spelled out “ROSALIND,” for example, and the melancholy Jacques (Eamon Murphy) spelled out “SAD.”

Another key prop was a red carpet, which spanned the stage and created an atmosphere of importance in the court scenes, then became more multipurpose in the Forest scenes. The underside of this carpet was white; when held up behind the exiled Duke Senior and his courtiers, it became a wintry sky above the Forest of Arden. The choice to set this production in winter confused me at first (shouldn’t the Forest be a playful, summer space?), but I soon realized that, in enacting their shivering, huddling for warmth, and other reactions to the cold temperature, the characters were forced to confront the fact that human connection is necessary for survival, one of the major themes of the play. Plus, a frosty winter forest made way for a steamy springtime quadruple wedding!

Connections between characters were additionally drawn by this production’s use of music. The play opened with opera: Amiens (Jessica Niles, who also composed and arranged for the show) stood at the center of the stage and sang to establish the story’s drama. Niles sang solo several other times throughout the show, played the violin, and led the rest of the ensemble in song. These ensemble moments were particularly powerful; the nobility, courtiers, and peasants were all linked by a single melody. By the time the play ended (also with a song), I was fully drawn into the realm of all these characters, and I felt charged by Rosalind’s epilogue to take belief in love with me back out into the night.

If you want to feel some warmth in this freezing first week of March, look no further than the Lenfest Center for the Arts. Mikhaela Mahony’s directing thesis will run this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 pm, and Saturday at 2 pm. Tickets are free for students and $15 general admission.

the cast on the risers via Betsy Ladyzhets