There are certain rules that must always be considered when staging a play outdoors in a park. Rule number one: Plays involving trees are particularly effective and save the expense of building treelike scenery, since most public parks already have, you know, trees. Rule number two: In an outdoor show, particularly one during which the audience will be eating and drinking, no actor's voice should be so soft that it cannot be heard by an audience member while that audience member is eating potato chips. Rule number three: None of the above really matters because, with or without trees, watching Shakespeare in the park while eating potato chips is a lot like going to a party, and is as much about sitting outdoors with friends in a beautiful place and having a bit of casual fun as it is about watching and hearing the mighty magic of old Willy Shakespeare.
Though the potato-chip rule is occasionally broken by some of the actors in the Sonoma County Repertory Theater's wonderfully breezy production of Shakespeare's As You Like It--the final show of the 14th annual Sebastopol Shakespeare Festival in Ives Park--this is otherwise a perfect example of outdoor Shakespeare done right. Set largely in the semi-magical forest of Arden, As You Like It includes numerous references to trees and occasionally calls for them to be used as props, and director Elizabeth Craven makes excellent use of Ives' greenery, staging several bits in, on and around the trees that surround the simple platform stage.
As You Like It is one of Shakespeare's most loosely plotted comedies. In Craven's hands, however, everything is paced so playfully, and each goofy bit of action or soliloquizing is staged with such imaginative flair and fun, that one barely notices or cares what a hodgepodge the play actually is. And since Shakespeare seemed to be playing fast and loose with his plotting, so does Craven, rearranging things in interesting ways and having some of the actors play several roles.
(The famous "All the world's a stage" speech describing the seven stages of life in which every player plays "many parts," is normally delivered by the melancholy nobleman Jacques deep in the first act, but here is used to open the show, with actor John Litton going through the seven stages of as he transforms himself with makeup and costume into the aged servant Adam, whose conversation with young Orlando--a wonderfully energetic Justin Scheuer--then begins the action.)
The plot is beside the point. For various reasons, a number of rich people have given up or been banished from court life and have gathered together in the forest, forming a kind of Elizabethan hippie tribe along with the native shepherds, farmers and other forest dwellers. The spiritual center of the group is the banished Duke Senior (Samson Hood), knocked out of power by his usurping brother Duke Frederick (also played by Hood).
Frederick's merry band include the manic-depressive Jacques (Litton) and, eventually, a love-struck Orlando, followed by the spirited Rosalind (Jeanette Harrison), Orlando's object of affection, who is disguised, because Shakespeare was into that kind of thing, as a boy. With Rosalind comes her best friend Celia (Gwen Kingston) and the court jester Touchstone (a marvelously coarse Gary Grossman). Before long, everyone is falling in love with everyone else, and there is plenty of same-sex confusion. Meanwhile, the evil duke sends Orlando's brother Oliver (Chad Yarish) into the forest to kill him, and . . . oh, forget it.
Never have I seen AYLI performed where the story, loopy and tangential and just plain weird, was played out with this much fun. And under Craven's clever direction, some things actually make sense that never have, such as the last-minute appearance of a woodland goddess, here performed as a kind of hippie wedding ritual. Nice touch.
With the accent on lightness and the focus on the joyous freedom of the outdoors, this As You like It is one groovy good time in the park.
'As You Like It' runs Thursday-Sunday through Aug. 26 at 7pm. Ives Park, Willow Street and Jewell Avenue, Sebastopol. $15-$20; Thursday, pay what you can. Special Sept. 15 performance in Armstrong Redwoods. 707.823.0177.
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