Who can argue with anything free? Better yet, who can argue with 46 seasons of summer nights spent in lovely Central Park, enjoying a picnic as a professional acting troupe presents a Shakespeare masterpiece? “Bringing the arts to everyone” is an admirable motto, and the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s “Free Will” summer season should be commended and attended by all, not just patrons of the arts.
After acknowledging the time and energy devoted to this festival solely due to love of theater, the critic is placed in the difficult position of being truthful. Yet a professional company deserves an honest critique, and that being said, in “As You Like It,” this season’s selection, there’s a general lack of physical ease coupled with a lack of commitment to director Curt L. Tofteland’s apparent vision.
In the comedy, the banished Duke Senior’s (George H. Brown) daughter Rosalinde (Tina Jo Wallace) lives with her cousin Celia (Jennifer A. Blair) in usurping Duke Fredericke’s (Brown in a dual role) court. Rosalinde and Orlando (Matt Wallace) meet and fall for each other, but before their love can come to fruition, the Duke banishes Orlando, who disappears to the Forest of Arden. Rosalinde is exiled as well, and, after conspiring to disguise herself as a man, she, Celia and Touchstone (Chris Perez), the court jester, flee to the forest, too. Merry men and shepherds reside in the fantastical forest, and, in true Shakespearean fashion, couples are derailed and mismatched until the play’s conclusion.
Fortunately, most of the actors are linguistically agile, processing the language in a way that even those who shy away from Shakespeare will understand. Where the problem lies in this production is in its uncertainty: Are the actors supposed to rely on the language to convey the essential lighthearted nature of the play, or depend on caricatures to translate it?
From the beginning, there are signs (the wrestler’s cartoon-like squeezing of Orlando’s hand, the shepherds chasing the girls) of the director’s intent on the latter, but without full commitment to the concept, these actions come across as awkwardly out of place. The biggest evidence of this is in the merry men’s songs. The actors walk out, hit their pre-appointed marks, and stand glued to them, even as the scene begs for exuberance. Where’s the boisterous dance and gaiety that surely characterizes their carefree lives?
To be fair, the second act somewhat compensates for the sluggish first. Chris Perez as Touchstone, one of Shakespeare’s hilarious fools, finally loosens up to pull off a cute near-marriage scene with the shepherdess Audrey (an adorable Cara Barresi). Wallace as Rosalinde is best when bossy or engaged in wordplay, and Marat Alan Gray (Sylvius) is sweetly obtuse. Jaques (Michael Tolfo) warrants mention for reciting one of Shakespeare’s most popular speeches (“All the world’s a stage …”) without pomp and circumstance, and Blair is noteworthy, although the role of Celia isn’t showy.
With the distractions that arise from staging a play outdoors — sirens, folks wandering through the park — it befits a show to go big, and “As You Like It” lends itself to being accentuated with bold strokes. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity. But the acoustics are great, and, can you really quibble with anything that’s free?
BY REBECCA HAITHCOAT