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Youth Theatre Presents Bard's 'As You Like It'

August 23, 1986|LYNNE HEFFLEY

Last week, the California Youth Theatre presented its first show at the John Anson Ford Theatre, Rodgers and Hart's "Babes in Arms," a winning musical about kids, done pleasantly by kids. It was an ambitious project, the result of a summer training program in the creative arts process for young people ages 12 to 21.

Its second show, which opened Thursday at the Ford, is more ambitious still, taking on Shakespeare's "As You Like It," a comic tale of treachery and love conquering all. It's undeniably a stretch.

The company of non-professionals wrestles with unintentional humor, get-it-over-with dialogue, erratic lighting and skimpily taped music. But the production never goes down for the count, thanks to some thoroughly engaging performances.

For Frani Ruch's irreverent Celia and Lisa Sundstedt's sturdy Rosalind, life is a lark. Ruch glides trippingly across the stage, clowns with abandon and lisps charmingly. Sundstedt's comic timing is deft; Rosalind's single-minded passion for sweet Orlando (played appealingly by Kenny Marsten) leads to a positive orgy of sharp wit, and Sundstedt is up to it.

Damon Kupper is a tall and slender Touchstone, not clownish in appearance but possessing an impish smile that serves him well as the witty fool. He loses his grasp on longer speeches (as do they all), but parries words with a light touch. He's at his best with his dimwitted amour Audrey (wide-eyed Ali Mandelbaum), discouraging her equally dimwitted suitor, defending his choice to the cynic Jacques: "an ill-favour'd thing, sir, but mine own."

By using the lush hillside surrounding the outdoor Ford Theatre, seemingly a natural setting for the magical Forest of Arden, director Tom Giamario takes a calculated risk. But the action is too far away from the audience, and the play lags when the exiled Duke and his merry men take to the hills. Dialogue becomes muffled and there's a distinct feeling that a road show of Peter Pan has taken a wrong turn somewhere.

This "As You Like It" hasn't depth, maturity or magic. What the production does have are a few actors who play off each other exceedingly well, whose exuberant youth works for them and who are often speaking a different language than the rest of the cast--a living, breathing language, light-hearted and bawdy.

Performances continue at 8 p.m. through Sunday at 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood; (213) 465-0070.

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