BWW Reviews: Connecticut Free Shakespeare Brings Back the 60's with As AS YOU LIKE IT
There's a sixties style happening going on in Southern Connecticut and it should not be missed. Connecticut Free Shakespeare has brought a delightful version of As You Like It to the outdoor stage. As envisioned by director, Ellen Lieberman, this production of Shakespeare's romantic comedy is set in 1969 and is complete with music, protests, idealized pastoral hippie life, and of course, all aspects of love. Shakespeare purists might object to some of the liberties taken in song and style, but this production is in perfect accord with Connecticut Free Shakespeare's mission of producing understandable and entertaining performances of Shakespeare's plays that are accessible to a broad range of audience members, including those not familiar with Shakespeare's work, without jeopardizing artistic integrity.
It is always a pleasure to see young children in the audience engrossed in the play that has been put before them, even more so when it is laying the groundwork for a lifelong love of the Bard's work. By including 60's style songs that the audience can join in singing, as well as characterizations that current audiences can relate to, and performing in a relaxed outdoor setting, the stage is perfectly set for a family friendly, drug free 'Be-in' of the theatrical kind.
As You Like It has some familiar Shakespearean devices: exiled rulers, women disguised as men, misdirected and unrequited love, love at first sight, a forest adventure leading to a happy ending for all, as well as the famous "All the world's a stage" soliloquy. This production is made more enjoyable by the caliber of the production team and the skilled, talented actors that take the stage.
Hannah Dubner and Caitlin Chuckta are excellent as Rosalind and Celia. Together, they are totally believable as intimate best friends and cousins, with a love between them that even an ambitious uncle cannot break. I especially love their seemingly adolescent 'squeeing' when Rosalind first meets Orlando at the wrestling match, as only two giddy teenage girls can. Celia never seems to break out of the schoolgirl mode, contrasted to Rosalind, who when in the guise of the youth Ganymede, not only affects a male stance and attributes, but also dispenses a knowledge of love and courtship that seems beyond her years.
Mark Friedlander is also excellent as Orlando, displaying all the frustration of a young man oppressed by his older brother's treatment and bemused by his own inability to speak when he first encounters the love of his life. Ah youth! When he escapes from his brother to the Arden Forest, he meets up with the exiled Duke, and his beloved Rosalind who is disguised as Ganymede, with whom Orlando strikes up a friendship. In the course of one of Ganymede's tutorials on the art of love, Orlando kisses him, and the look of confusion on Orlando's face at that point is priceless.
Musical director Eric Brian Nyquist plays the dual roles of Orlando's older brother Oliver and Amiens, part of the exiled court of Duke Senior in the Forest of Arden. Amiens serves as the court troubadour, setting the tone of the exiles' hippie lifestyle and providing the soundtrack that they, and the audience, can groove to. Mr. Nyquist's entertaining and unique characterization of Amiens is reminiscent of George Carlin's Hippy Dippy Weatherman. Anthony Vaughn Merchant plays both Duke Frederick and the man he deposed, Duke Senior. Each seems the antithesis of the other; where Duke Frederick is uptight, greedy and ambitious, Duke Senior seems laid back and content for the time being in the forest, patiently awaiting that time when he can return to court.
Ian Eaton plays both Charles, the wrestler, and Jaques, another of Duke Senior's exiles. While Charles is played for laughs, Jaques is the more serious and melancholy of the roles. In this production Jaques does not seem as much of a downer as portrayed in other productions. Although dressed more somberly in comparison to the colorful hippie costumes of the rest of the Arden exiles, Jaques is less of an Eeyore in the forest, as he is a realist in search of his place in the world. Mr. Eaton plays Jaques with an island accent, making him more of a knowing old uncle in the midst of the chaos of the counterculture. However, because of the character's inherent maturity and sobering presence, Mr. Eaton's delivery of the "All the world's a stage" soliloquy when surrounded by the colorful exuberance of youth is all the more poignant and meaningful.
Part of the brilliance of this production is the connection to the sights and sounds of 1969. In keeping with that theme, we have the Establishment as seen in the characters of the court: Oliver, and Duke Frederick, and the counterculture as characterized by the flower children and hippie lifestyle of the Arden exiles. Another sixties phenomenon is also present in this production in the persons of the simple country folk of the Forest of Arden. With corny accents and costumes reminiscent of the popular television show, "Hee Haw," the 1969 connection is complete. Standouts among the country cast are Alton Alburo as the lovestruck Silvius and Regina Gibson as Phoebe, the woman who cruelly disdains him. Phoebe's attempts to seduce Ganymede are particularly unsophisticated and awkward; she reminded me of a character from Li'l Abner - yet another throwback to the sixties.
Joining in the love fest in the woods, and making a further connection between country and court life are Jacob Heimer as Touchstone and Liliane Klein as Audrey. They form another comedic, yet unlikely couple. Unmatched in intellect, their relationship is grounded in physical attraction and lust, as opposed to the other couples striving for loftier ideals. Even the hated Oliver finds love in the forest when he meets Celia and they are both "struck in a moment of breathless delight." The woods also magically solve the problem with the dukes. Frederick meets a clergyman in the forest, finds God, and restores Duke Senior's title and lands to him. It was a convenient ending for Shakespeare, but a happy ending for all the characters in this play.
Scenic design by Elizabeth Popiel and lighting by Sebastian Paczynski enhance the outdoor experience of this show. Props and graphic design by Alejandro Lopez also add to the look and feel of the sixties. Ellen Lieberman's adaptation even allows for a surprising and funny bit with a telephone that has to be seen to believed.
The star of the production team is costume designer Jessica Camarero. Not only are there surprising costume pieces like the feather boa worn by Charles the wrestler, and a clergyman who looks like a refugee from The Book of Mormon, the costumes of the court are conservative reflections of the clothes worn in 1969. Ms. Camarero's brilliant 60's hippie costumes are amazing and inspired. These hippies are not gritty street people but colorful flower children spreading the ideas of peace and love. The costumes are perfect. It is like looking back at an era through the forgiving lens of nostalgia.
The run of As You Like It has ended at the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, but it will move to McLevy Green in Downtown Bridgeport from August 6th - 10th at 8:00 pm. Admission is free but donations are accepted. Don't miss it! This brilliant production turns this Shakespeare play into a family experience that cannot be beat.