Last year's Shakespeare Festival tackled two shows: the ever-delightful A Midsummer Night's Dream and the weighty Antony and Cleopatra. This summer, the festival has dispensed with a tragic half to concentrate on the season-appropriate As You Like It — flowers, weddings, the love of nature and the nature of love.
And what better setting for this diversion than the Summer of Love, the 1967 moment that this production, directed by Sidonie Garrett, borrows from and celebrates. If you think the set looks atypically modern for a Shakespeare play, with its signs about flower power and electronic surveillance, well, it's just a heads-up. Because when the show begins (after the humorous Shakespearean shtick announcing rules for spectators), Duke Frederick (Mark Robbins) and his courtiers (er, henchmen) don shiny, Italian-looking suits, fedoras and sunglasses (those mobster scoundrels), and the cast, for the most part, is outfitted in '60s attire (colorful costumes designed by Mary Traylor).
It all works. This production is pure enjoyment. Cast members, nearly all of them well-known local performers, embody a roster of characters and fluidly deliver Shakespeare's lines. Yes, there are the usual disguises and cross-dressings, and the seemingly complicated plot (about which, more in a minute) doesn't always make complete sense, but the story is basically a simple one: All you need is love.
Well, maybe. As You Like It both sentimentalizes love and parodies it. And here, it's great fun, with the wit and spectacle and showmanship turned all the way up.
Nestled among the trees, the staging makes perfect use of the intimate Southmoreland Park. Act 1's urban court is cleverly transformed into the Forest of Arden (scenic design by Gene Emerson Friedman), to which the characters flee or are banished, and where they idealistically seek a less politicized, less complicated life. It's their Woodstock, and they've gotten back to the garden. In the dark, the rising moon actually feels like part of the scenery.
And speaking of '60s music: Greg Mackender has composed the melodies for this production, setting Shakespeare's lyrics to folk-pop tunes (one sounds like James Taylor).
Oliver (Matt Rapport), who has inherited his father's estate, despises his brother, Orlando (Todd Carlton Lanker), and threatens his life. After fighting court wrestler Charles (Taylor St. John), Orlando flees to the Forest of Arden. Likewise, Duke Frederick has usurped the throne of his brother, Duke Senior (John Rensenhouse), who also has fled to the forest with his followers. Duke Senior's daughter, Rosalind (Carla Noack), this play's heroine, ends up in the forest with her cousin, Celia (Cinnamon Schultz), Duke Frederick's daughter, and with Touchstone (Jacques Roy), the court jester. Orlando is hopelessly in love with Rosalind, who dresses as a man called Ganymede. Celia dresses as a shepherdess and changes her name to Aliena.
Meanwhile, shepherd Silvius (Jake Walker) is in love with Phoebe (Emily Peterson), who despises him but loves Ganymede (that is, Rosalind). And Touchstone falls in lust with the simple-minded but sexy goatherd Audrey (Mary Glen Fredrick). Another shepherd among them, Corin (Scott Cordes), pops in occasionally to comment on the pastoral life, accompanied by a herd of sheep — a skillfully constructed marionette. Jacques (Bruce Roach), a lord accompanying Duke Senior, is the group's depressant. Amiens (Nathan Bovos), another lord, is the happy type and likes to sing. And the elderly Adam (Michael Rapport) proves a faithful servant to Orlando.
All of the performances are good, and many are standouts. Roy, who appeared as an acrobatic and unconventional Puck in Midsummer, steals his scenes with physical comedy and an outlandish Touchstone, channeling samurais, stand-up comics and Olympic gymnasts. Rensenhouse and Robbins have small roles (as does Cordes) but leave lasting impressions. Peterson's sassy Phoebe has nearly nothing to do in Act 1 but commands her scenes later in the show. Lanker is dreamy and believable as lovestruck Orlando. And Noack, with the largest role in this work, anchors the play, skillfully communicating its sentiments.
I saw a few people leave at intermission during a preview performance lasting till nearly 11 p.m. They must have faced an early morning (how full of briers, indeed, is this working-day world), because little else could explain abandoning a production so joyful and entertaining. I admit I was a bit weary myself the next day — but less weary of the world.