Everyone has an idea of how Shakespeare “should” be performed: from the gorgeous flashiness of Shakespeare Theatre Company to the original practice imitations of American Shakespeare Center to edgy interpretations popular on Fringe stages. But for my money, Shakespeare performed outdoors, on a ramshackle stage and under the stars, is hard to beat. That’s especially true for this year’s Shakespeare in the Parks in Prince George’s County, as a scrappy bunch of local actors give the Bard’s As You Like It a fun, wholesome fling fit for the whole family.
As You Like It falls easily into the comedy category, starting with unrequited love and familial conflict, but ending with a wedding and reconciliation. A usurper has taken the dukedom and has suddenly banished Rosalind, daughter of the old duke who runs away with his own daughter, Celia, to the Forest of Arden. But not before Rosalind falls in love with Orlando. A bevy of other couples fall in love with each other: Celia and Orlando’s brother Oliver, the shepherd Silvius and Phoebe (the reluctant subject of his affection), and courtly fool Touchstone with shepherdess Audrey. Given that it is a Shakespearean comedy, it shouldn’t be a 400 year old spoiler that things pretty much work out for almost everyone.
But As You Like It isn’t just a comedy, it is what Bardolaters call a pastoral play, and this genre is one of the things that makes this production feel so right in the open air setting. Pastorals are romantic plays with a very specific plotline: there’s trouble in the city or court and characters escape to the countryside to solve their problems, which are almost always troubles of love. There’s something that feels right about hearing the thrum of cicadas and the smell of sap when these characters shed their urban trappings and arrive in Arden. In this production, director Christopher Dwyer does everything he can, from a well-used deer puppet to the interlacing countrified music, to emphasize that pastoral mood.
Dwyer puts the time and place backdrop of this play as ostensibly 1916 America. But really, that’s just an excuse to fill this production with Ben Lauer’s rustic take on tunes drawn from Shakespeare’s text. Some songs are flavored with jazz, but most are infused with the high, lonesome sound of bluegrass. The band (amusingly called Def Shepherd) frequently doubles as minor characters throughout the play, freely exchanging the low country humor of those characters with their fervent country musicianship. At times, Shakespeare in the Parks’ As You Like It feels much like a concert with Shakespeare sprinkled in, which suits me just fine.
The principal actors play to their wide open venue, dropping the filmic subtleness now popular on Shakespearean stages in favor of something more gestural. The move is appreciated. Although such grittiness would feel missed in a tragedy, As You Like It’s only subtlety lies in the not well hidden bodily puns that lace the text. Don’t worry, parents, these will fly over the kiddie’s heads, but you’ll get them.
As You Like It
Remaining free performances:
July 20, 7:30 pm
Watkins Regional Park
301 Watkins Park Dr, Upper Marlboro, MD
July 21, 7:30 pm
Southern Regional Technology and Recreation Complex
7007 Bock Road, Fort Washington 20744
July 22, 7:30 pm
Fairwood Community Park
12390 Annapolis Road, Bowie 20720
July 23, 3:00 pm
5445 Landover Rd, Cheverly, MD 20784
That’s the fundamental strength of this production. Most audiences need a good 15-30 minutes to get into the groove of the Elizabethan language even when the actors know what they’re saying, which is a sadly common occurrence. But Dwyer’s direction and these actors make the sometimes cryptic language of Shakespeare refreshingly clear. When the smoldering Christian Gibbs as Orlando declaims his passion into the night, it is easy to tell what he is passionate about. When a grinning Chelsea Mayo as Rosalind pops in and out of disguise to navigate complex romances, it is no problem to follow her chain of logic. And most importantly, thank the gods for Gary DuBreuil who takes Touchstone, who can be the least funny clown outside of Stephen King’s Pennywise, to a place where Shakespeare twisty puns can be laughed at by contemporary audiences.
Everything about this production, from its simple sound-enhancing wooden backdrop set to the slapstick comedy, is as clear as bottled water (which you should bring in ample portions). That said, a Shakespeare in the Parks production must be prepared for in order to be fully enjoyed. Bring a lawn chair and/or a big blanket with some supporting pillows or the grass may become more torture than tickle. Bring your favorite beverage (perhaps wrapped in a paper bag) and some good picnic snacks. Sit up front if you can, because the actors do not have mics and may get their voices lost in the waves of natural, or sometimes unnatural, surrounding sounds. Bug spray isn’t amiss either. But I submit that if you don’t come to an open air event with these things, you may be asking for whatever unpleasantness befalls you.
Shakespeare in the Park’s As You Like It isn’t really a revelation. It doesn’t make Shakespeare’s old standby pop with new power or reach heights of emotion unheard of. It doesn’t wow with budget-busting flash. But it doesn’t have to. What it does is take good ideas about performing Shakespeare and execute them well. What it does is play funnily with a fun play. What it does is make me want to come back. I’ll be bringing my family and friends, and you should, too.
[Note: Shakespeare in the Parks goes to a different PG County park for every performance, of which there is only one weekend left. Check this calendar to find the correct location. There are alternate rain locations indoors. Every performance is free.]
As You Like It by William Shakespeare. Directed by Christopher Dwyer. Featuring Christian Gibbs, Chelsea Mayo, Renea Brown, Gary DuBreuil, Michael Crowley, Dylan Fleming, Willem Krumich, Manolo Santalla, Greg Ongao, Lindsay Williams, Tori Boutin, Randy Snight, Ben Lauer, Amber James, Rebecca Speas, Kaitlyn Napora Johnston, Michael Miller, Brianna Manente, and Joey Scalise. Set Design by Mark Wujcik . Costume Design by Celestine Ranney-Howes . Lighting Design by Alan Ernstein . Sound Design by Benjamin Fan . Produced by Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation. Reviewed by Alan Katz.