UPDATE 7/3: A condensed version of this review appears in today’s 7 section. Plus: Wet Towel, who kicked off an energetic debate about the review among Beehive readers, sees the show and offers his opinion. Read what he thinks in the comments section.
ORIGINAL ENTRY: Community-theater Shakespeare can be a hit or a miss. The current production of “As You Like It,” which opens the Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s fifth summer season, belongs in the miss column.
I don’t have anything against director Michael Peterson’s wacky concept for the show — which involves setting Shakespeare’s frothy pastoral comedy in the late 1960s on the southern California coast during the “Summer of Love.” Nor is the purist in me much bothered by Peterson’s liberties with the script, which includes rather cheekily inserting “surfer dude” into the Shakespearean lexicon.
In fact, I kind of like Peterson’s rationale for getting all hippie-groovy on us. In the play, Shakespeare lathers attention on the “simple” countryside, giving us sort of a “noble savage” approach to the superiority of nature, and I like the way that Peterson sees laidback beach culture on one end of a spectrum and uptight L.A. culture on the other.
But the acting in this “As You Like It” is very uneven. And though the direction might seem brisk — at least the words seem to motor by at a healthy clip — in the end it comes across as unshaped and aimless.
Set designer Jarred Clowes actually gives us a real beach. (Well, it’s at least a healthy stretch of shoreline in front of the stage involving a dump-truck load of sand, and that’s impressive.) The most memorable set piece is a thatched-roof bar called Big Willie’s, which is the heart of “Arden Beach” (transformed from the Forest of Arden). Throughout the show, of course, are mod outfits (costumes by Jennifer Hurd-Peterson) ranging from mini-skirts to cut-off jean shorts, and such expected Summer of Love accoutrements as peace necklaces and hand-rolled cigarettes.
All this is atmospheric enough, but it’s hard as an audience member to get caught up in what should be the giddy, fantastical frenzy of the play. The two strongest lead performers, Gabriela Lawson as Rosalind and Lisi Drioane as Celia (pictured), come closest to drawing us into this entrancing world. Their characters shed the trappings of respectability as they escape from under the thumb of their imposing parental figure, Judge Frederick (a nicely played Jeff Meacham), and leave home behind for lust and adventure in the no-holds-barred playland of the forest, um beach.
“As You Like It” is chock full of all sorts of Shakespearean comic devices, including cross-dressing lovers, mistaken identities and oodles of couples itching to be married. As this production moves along, however, it gets weighed down by the complexity of the material. What should be light becomes heavy. Billy Whitehurst, as the alpha-male lover, Orlando, has an endearing grin, and at Friday night’s performance last opening weekend he worked hard to own a large and complex role, but he struggles to find the range and depth of his character and connect with the lyricism of the text.
Others had similar struggles connecting with the text, including Chris Livermore as Silvius, Mitchell Perez as Jaques, Charles West as “Judge” Senior, Pat Smith as Adam and Alissa Cummings as Audrey. Each performer in the show certainly has some high points to share with the audience, and I don’t want to deny their dedication. And there is potential in the setting and direction. But even at a community-theater level, this production left much to be desired.