TOWSON — Center Stage aimed to open “As You Like It” Friday, but the company responded to the blizzard forecast and let critics in Thursday night. Nimbleness is the watchword for the troupe at the moment: Center Stage has closed its downtown Baltimore building for a $32 million project that features major renovations to its two-stage complex while adding a new 99-seat theater. The last two shows of this season are being staged at Towson University’s Center for the Arts, and that’s where director Wendy C. Goldberg’s all-female “As You Like It” is putting its gentle smile on Shakespeare’s comedy.
Migrating from downtown to Towson isn’t quite like fleeing the play’s corrupt court for the forest of Arden, but it’s in Arden that this show seems to find its surest footing. Designer Arnulfo Maldonado supplies a glossy box for the usurping Duke of Frederick’s palace, and the stiff, arch tone set by the architecture extends to the initially wooden cast as the Duke exiles his niece Rosalind. (The Duke stole power from his brother, and now he irrationally fears Rosalind, too.)
It’s a modern palace — the fool Touchstone has a cellphone — but when it recedes, it’s replaced by an utterly gorgeous stand of trees. This Arden is populated by a tribe of Deadheads, or something like that: dressed by costume designer Anne Kennedy in Army surplus and flannels and fleece, the youthful foresters crank up rock tunes on a boom box, spinning and dancing their cares away.
This is where Rosalind will chase down Orlando, the handsome youth she spied at court and who is also fleeing for his safety. To do it, of course, she dresses as a man — but then so do all the “male” characters in this all-female cast. How subversive is this? Not very, except for the obviously substantial politics of women getting rare chances at these classical roles.
Thematically, Goldberg doesn’t seem to have an especially refined idea about gender beyond blurring the lines. The show’s women play a wide range of women. They also play a wide range of men. It’s impossible to affix specific qualities to either gender. The playfulness is the thing.
The show’s richest moment comes when Rosalind, disguised as the male Ganymede, encounters Orlando in Arden. Kennedy dresses them more or less the same, in jeans and outdoorsy vests, and Goldberg lets the actors pause for a moment to take each other in. For the audiences, it’s like seeing five reflections in two female bodies: performer Julia Coffey as Rosalind as Ganymede, and performer Sofia Jean Gomez as Orlando.
Goldberg and adapter Gavin Witt (Center Stage’s dramaturg and associate director) keep the tone light and brisk, although not quite as brisk at the less than two hours that’s advertised. The denizens of Arden relax on lawn chairs and cluster around lightweight hiking tents, and the frisky tone patches over some less-thanpenetrating renditions of the language. Appropriately, Coffey is the most commanding performer in a cast that includes a handful of Towson students in its ensemble. Rosalind’s quick wit and love-drunkenness flow beautifully in Coffey’s shining turn.
Coffey is nicely set off by Gomez’s stillness and composure as Orlando, and by Mattie Hawkinson’s ultra-feminine Celia, who gets the best dresses in this flannely show. (The cut of Celia’s black gown in court — short in front and very long in back — is smashing.) Angela Reed is a dry Jaques soberly delivering the “Seven Ages of Man” speech, and the show’s romantic subplots go down smoothly, if not memorably. This gender-fluid staging isn’t a mind-bender; “likable” sounds right.
As You Like It by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wendy C. Goldberg. Lights, Josh Epstein; sound design, Matt Hubbs; choreography, Karma Camp. With Charlotte Booker, Julia Brandeberry, Liz Daingerfield, Margaret Daly, Celeste Den, Tracey Farrar, Jenna Rossman and Tia Shearer. About 2 hours and 20 minutes. Through Feb. 14 at the Towson University Center for the Arts, 1 Fine Arts Drive, Towson. Tickets $1-$69. Call 410-332-3300 or visit centerstage.org.