BWW Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at Kentucky Shakespeare
Review by Annette Skaggs.
There is something special about this time of year. The school schedule is winding down, the sun shines a bit longer in the day, fireflies come out of their hibernation and the Kentucky Shakespeare Company begins their season. This year will mark the venerable company's 59th Anniversary and they are still going strong. So what magic is weaved that keeps this program going year after year? The answer is quite simple really and can be summed up in a few words: imagination, reinvention, education, and dedication. All of these were on full display in the season opener of As You Like It.
One of Shakespeare's most popular comedies, the play is a tale of greed, deception, true love and redemption. Funny huh? Believe me, it really is.
Duke Frederick (Dathan Hooper) has exiled his eldest brother Duke Senior (J. Barrett Cooper) and his followers to the Arden Forest, usurping the eldest Duke's birthright to leadership. Frederick's daughter Celia (Amber Avant) begs that her dear cousin Rosalind (Hallie Dizdarevic) be allowed to stay with her. Meanwhile, their father's eldest brother Oliver (Jon Patrick O'Brien) lived in the lap of luxury while keeping his younger brother Orlando (Jon Becraft) in squalor. Reaching his fill of being under his brother's thumb Orlando wrestles for his freedom at Frederick's court and wins. After the match, Orlando and Rosalind meet and instantly fall in love.
Fearing that Rosalind has become too popular and will affect his rule, Frederick exiles Rosalind as he did her father. Upon the pronouncement, both cousins leave the court, disguising themselves as a boy, Ganymede, and Aliena, and take the jester Touchstone (Gregory Maupin) with them for support and comfort. Soon after, learning of his own life in jeopardy at the hands of his brother, Orlando flees to the forest. He and his servant Adam (Tom Luce) happen upon the exiled Duke and his followers, including the sullen Miss Jaques (Abigail Bailey Maupin) and take shelter with them. While in the forest Orlando leaves love poems on the trees hoping to reconnect with fair Rosalind.
Rosalind, rather Ganymede, comes across the poems and Orlando himself. The two strike up a friendship in which Ganymede assists Orlando in wooing Rosalind by "standing in" for her so he can practice. As Rosalind has eyes only for Orlando, the young Phebe (Angelica Santiago) has fallen for Ganymede all while love-struck Silvius (Crystian Wiltshire) tries his best to win Phebe. When Oliver is sent into the forest to look for Orlando, who eventually saves his life, the hardened brother changes his ways and then falls for "Aliena". When "Ganymede" learns that Touchstone wants to marry the shepherdess Audrey (Jennifer Pennington) a plan is put into motion to bring each lover to his or her proper match.
As is common in Shakespearean plays, events unfold that you have to take with a grain of salt. Such is the case in As You Like It. But all Shakespeare plays need fantastic actors, and lucky for us Kentucky Shakespeare has some of the best in the business.
Jennifer Pennington's portrayal of LeBeau as she lusted for the wrestlers was fun and well played while her Audrey was just the right sort of simple. While Dathan Hooper doesn't have a lot of stage time as the villainous Duke Frederick, he leaves an impression. One could not help but to root for Crystian Wiltshire's Silvius to get the egoistic Phebe. His puppy-like quality was endearing. Angelica Santiago did well to recognize Crystian's energy and react to it.
While Duke Senior is also not on stage for a great amount of time, J. Barrett Cooper's delivery of dialogue is stunning as he extols the virtues and melancholy of humankind. The same can be said for Jon Huffman's Corin, who knows the follies of men.
While typically played by a man, Abigail Bailey Maupin's Miss Jaques was suspicious and sullen. Well executed to be sure. Jon Patrick O'Brien as unscrupulous Oliver was conniving and charismatic. Gregory Maupin's Touchstone was well delivered and expertly timed. His "150 ways" soliloquy was one of the funniest moments of the evening. Amber Avant did well in recognizing Celia's childlike charm and enthusiasm. Jon Becraft's Orlando was energetic and purposeful. His comedic chemistry with Hallie Dizdarevic was a delight to watch.
As You Like It is also one of the few plays by Shakespeare that give so much room to women, even giving the lead female character the epilogue as well. Such is the pleasure of the role of Rosalind and I am delighted to say that Ms. Dizdarevic was fantastic as the fair Duchess/Land Owner. Her delivery of Rosalind/Ganymede required the ability to be both alluring and tough all while being beguiling and protective. While the role is a bit duplicitous it is all in the name of love and Ms. Dizdarevic handled it all with grace and eloquence.
While this piece was fun, comedic, and filled with buoyancy, there were a few points I noticed that didn't make a lot of sense to me. One of the first was the make-up of the barn in which Orlando and Adam resided. As it was supposed to resemble a tobacco barn from Kentucky, the cloths that hung there didn't resemble tobacco too much. If I didn't know the show was set in Kentucky I wouldn't have surmised these to be tobacco. Another was in a quick action that Rosalind made as she and Celia went to the wrestling match, in which she pretended the handle of her parasol was a microphone, which seemed anachronistic for the period in which this production is set (the 1870s). Thirdly, while spats were commonly worn during the late 19th century into the 20th, I am less certain if men who were in the service of landowners wore them. I wondered why Touchstone did not dress down as his employers did. With that, I will say that the hat gags were hilarious.
I mentioned earlier that our staff at Kentucky Shakespeare is inventive. Case in point would be the hiring of local bluegrass musician Aaron Bibelhauser who composed several songs that were interjected throughout the show, using lyrics/words/phrases that were common for Shakespeare's time, including "Sweet Lovers Love the Spring". Driving the spirit of Kentucky and the allure of love in the Springtime, Mr. Bibelhauser's songs were hummable and downright danceable adding a new dimension to a production that was already entertaining. Using the talents that are already inherent within the company, including Gregory Maupin on the banjo, and Neill Robertson, who played Amiens, serving as the lead vocalist, the whole of the cast delved into the music like second nature.
Lastly, I would like to acknowledge that Kentucky Shakespeare is dedicating this season to the late, great Bekki Jo Schneider, who we lost last year after a battle with cancer. Bekki Jo was once a producer of Kentucky Shakespeare, the founder of Derby Dinner Playhouse, and a force to be reckoned with. She has left a legacy in and around this area and her goodwill and talents will be with us for generations to come.
As You Like It
May 29 - July 20, 2019
Shakespeare Festival in Central Park
C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater
1340 S. Fourth St.
Louisville, KY 40208
As You Like It playing thru June 9, then July 9, 11, 13, 17 & 20.
Admission is free. Everyone welcome, including pets.
Food trucks open at 6:30 pm Will's Tavern begins serving at 7:00 pm
Pre-Show begins at 7:15 pm, with main stage production at 8:00 pm