If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
A Peace and Love "As You LIke It"
Less than a week after seeing the Westport Country Playhouse put a contemporary spin on Henric Ibsen's "A Doll's House", comes Connecticut Free Shakespeare's 1960s era set "As You Like It". The popular romantic comedy is now filled with hippie protests and lots of peace and love music to augment Shakespeare's tale about the many manifestations of love in the Forest of Arden. Again, as in Westport, we seem to have a case of concept upstaging the written word.
Every summer CT Free Shakespeare appeals to the masses with its user-friendly productions of the Bard's work in picturesque outdoor settings. This most recent offering took place on the grounds of Stratford's beleaguered Shakespeare Theatre which could use a good dose of the Bard's work whatever the case. Set under some gorgeous tall trees on the theatre grounds, this "As You Like It" clearly delighted the hundreds of happy theatregoers in attendance last weekend. Directed and freely adapted by Producing Artistic Director Ellen Lieberman, her frantic and loud rendering is set in 1969 where protesters, living in exile in the Forest of Arden, voice their support for Duke Senior who was overthrown by his own brother, Duke Frederick.This is followed by a series of events involving mismatched lovers, women disguised as men and the requisite happy ending of resolution and peace within the kingdom.
CT Free Shakespeare's admirable mission is to make the works of Shakespeare "understandable" and "accessible to a broad range of audience members". They have had success in the past with productions of "Romeo and Juliet and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" among others, but I dare say not many in attendance of this recent show would be able to give a full account of what actually happened on stage. It's not that the actors are lacking though, in the large company, there are obviously stronger performers than others. So much energy has been put into the period trappings and long song sessions, that the threads of the narrative get lost in the process. Indeed, even the company's "living intermission" becomes wearying as the actors lead sing-alongs and get theatregoers to kick up their heels on stage. (Aren't there Equity regulations regarding stipulated breaks for their employees? Just asking.) Not for nothing, but the audience could use a break from all this "merriment" at intermission, too.
Many of the company's stronger performers have returned again this summer including Mark Friedlander who proves a charismatic and well-spoken Orlando. Anthony Vaughn Merchant is a double threat playing both Dukes and company stalwart Eric Brian Nyquist plays two roles, sings, choreographs the show and rarely stops strumming his guitar. Nyquist is a trooper to be sure, but needed vocal rest on the night I caught the show. Ian Eaton's Jaques and Caitlin Chuckta's Celia are also pluses here.
Elizabeth Popiel's rather ugly scenic design would have fared better using the natural surroundings of the Stratford Shakespeare grounds, but Jessica Camarero's costumes tend to the period correctly and Fred Santore's expert sound catches every shouted word. For me, however, the production lacked both poetry and romance, but I freely admit I was in a distinct minority. Credit the savvy Ms. Lieberman for knowing her audience and giving them what they like and as they like it.
"As You Like It" finished its run in Stratford last week and now continues on McLevy Green in Bridgeport through Sunday, August 10. It is free and open to the public. For further information visit: ctfreeshakespeare.org.
Tom Holehan is Chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.