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Ride 'em cowgirl

As You Like It gets duded up in Western drag

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When is a forest not a forest? When the Georgia Shakespeare Festival stages As You Like It and reimagines the Forest of Arden as the lonesome prairie of the Wild West. Scrub trees are present, as tree trunks prove crucial to the story, but otherwise the production is planted squarely in the 19th century American frontier.

There's a nugget of justification for grafting the cowboy concept onto the Shakespeare play. As You Like It evokes Arden as a primeval wilderness, akin not only to Eden but such distinctly English groves as Sherwood Forest or the Hundred-Acre Wood. For Americans, the mythic West arguably better suits this notion of unspoiled nature. Several times the play even describes Arden as a "desert," and here the Georgia Shakespeare Festival makes the reference literal instead of figurative.

Directed by Jessica Phelps West, As You Like It enthusiastically immerses itself in Western detail. During the introductory "urban" scenes, Crawford C. Pratt's set, with clapboard storefronts and swinging saloon doors, precisely imitates the one-horse towns of any oater. Stan Poole's clever costumes include Sergio Leone gunslingers, buckskinned trappers and derringer-toting gamblers. But the gimmick and the text often end up at cross-purposes, creating the kind of situation where you don't watch the play itself as much as how the concept intrudes on the play.

The production makes you aware of how loosely plotted As You Like It is, compared to the similar plot lines in The Tempest and Twelfth Night. Before the action begins, usurping "cattle baron" Frederick (Bruce Evers) has banished noble Duke Senior (Chris Kayser) to the forest. Frederick's enmity also inspires him to exile the Duke's witty daughter Rosalind (Suzanne Roush) and young Orlando (Brad Sherrill), an

honest young cowpoke favored by the

banished Duke.

Frederick's daughter Celia (Michele McCullough) flees with Rosalind, who decides to disguise herself as a young buckaroo for their protection. You could call this version of the play "Rosalind, Get Your Gun," and one line is tweaked so Rosalind can mention, "A shooting iron on my thigh, a bowie knife in my hand."

In the town scenes, the story mechanics move as slow as molasses, but subsequently the show proves more at home on the range. The production's most inspired touch gives Shakespeare's songs to a pair of singing, yodeling cowboys. Melancholy Jacques (John Ammerman), here a grizzled prospector, even plays the spoons in the play's most cheerful moment. Later, Kayser plays the harmonica underneath Jacques' pessimistic "Seven ages of man" speech.

As You Like It offers some genuinely funny business, as when Celia declares, "I cannot go no further," while being carried by the clown Touchstone (Jonathan Davis), or Orlando, smitten at first sight of Rosalind, walks around with his boot half on. With Rosalind in disguise as a man, there's plenty of gender-bending mistaken identity jokes as she gives Orlando lessons in courtship and misguided Phebe (Kathleen McManus) falls in love with her.

One of the lasting achievements of As You Like It is its verbal dexterity, and the Western details and rustic accents can make it more difficult to focus on Shakespeare's elegant language. In the play, Touchstone is a clever courtier out of sorts with the unsophisticated country; conceiving the role as a deputy marshal doesn't make much sense. Tim McDonough strikes a memorable pose as a mysterious stranger in a duster, but his eavesdropping on action seems weirdly voyeuristic and pays off poorly as a means to tying the plot together.

Gamely working with lariats, six-guns and card tricks, Suzanne Roush is well-cast as Rosalind, conveying the role's frustrated feelings and eagerness to think her way out of her strange predicaments. Such cast members as Sherrill and Ammerman also roll with the Westernized As You Like It, but ultimately Shakespeare gets lost beneath its 10-gallon hats.

Georgia Shakespeare Festival presents As You Like It in repertory through Aug. 11 at 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 2 and 8 p.m. Sun. at the Conant Performing Arts Center, Oglethorpe University, 4484 Peachtree Road, $20-26.50. 404-264-0020.

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