If this season is the "Year of the Woman" among Bay Area Shakespeare Festivals then surely the Livermore Shakespeare Festival, with its female leadership team (Artistic Director Lisa A. Tromovitch, Managing Director Katie Marcel) deserves particular notice. Although they have done nothing to draw particular attention to it, it is worth observing that this summer the festival has an all-female directing staff (Tromovitch and long-time company member Jennifer Le Blanc) and a female-centered repertoire (Sense and Sensibility, As You Like It).
[Note: Managing Director Katie Marcel has pointed out that, although she describes it as a matter of chance and not design, the Board of Directors is also all-female.]
The company is certainly on the move. Tromovitch is the recently elected President of the international Shakespeare Theatre Association and has worked steadily to raise the profile and professionalism of her company over the last five years, including a change for this season to Wente Vinyards as a performance venue.
That new venue provides the key to Tromovitch's production of As You Like It. Performed on an elevated platform with essentially no scenery and completely surrounded by the audience, the opening night performance had an unforced rapport between the performers and the audience reminiscent of the original conditions for Shakespearean performances. The audience was very close, and never treated as if they were in a separate space. It helped (a lot) that no matter where you sat, audience members were in your direct line of sight across the stage from you. Actors freely passed through the audience for ALL entrances, and those not currently onstage frequently popped into empty seats here and there to watch the show with us.
The resulting casual tone was perfect for just knocking back and enjoying the show, aided by the fact that nearly everyone there was enjoying a glass of wine while they watched. The comfort and ease of the audience interaction was a stark contrast to most Shakespeare, indeed most theatre, that I see where the audience is strongly controlled and subtly intimidated. Here, it was easy to forget that you were watching a four hundred year old play by the-greatest-writer-that-ever-lived. It felt as easy going and enjoyable as a community picnic.
Tromovitch's take on the show was essentially conservative, with period-ish costumes with a folk flavor designed by Barbara Murray, although she did adopt a very original approach to the dramaturgically troubled ending of the show that surprised and delighted. Her point, however, was not to comment on the show but to fulfill it. Thanks to leading lady Maryssa Wanlass, it was the most emotionally present and engaging AYLI I have seen in some time. Her chemistry with Joseph Salazar (as Orlando) was as fresh and delightful as that of the latest summer rom-com.
A Fiendishly Difficult Favorite
As You Like It is a popular favorite among Shakespeare's comedies, but is in fact fiendishly difficult to get right. It employs the most music of any Shakespeare play, has a rather unfocused, meandering plot, and typically ends with a literal, and essentially unexplained, deus ex machina in which the god Hymen arrives to set things right—an incident treated so casually that one might assume these characters just interact with gods daily. Things can, and often do, go wrong on all three fronts.
Tromovitch tackles all three of these challenges with a single unifying device—the continual foregrounding of singer Sean Patrick Nill as a kind of metatheatrical narrator. In his hands, often accompanied by other cast members vocally and on instruments, the music is aesthetically engaging while used to tie the story together. When he subsumed the role of Hymen at the play's end – because he had seemingly been manipulating the story from slightly outside and above the play all evening—it, for once, made sense!
Layers of Plot
The plot is complicated: a dispossessed young man, Orlando, falls in love with the beautiful niece of his corrupt Duke, but is so green and awkward he falls back on clichéd love poems to woo her. The niece, Rosalind, is herself forced to flee from her uncle, who usurped the crown from her father. To protect herself, she goes into exile disguised as a man. They meet again in the woods where both have fled. Orlando does not recognize her through her male disguise, but agrees to some tutoring from her (in her male persona) during which s/he will imitate his beloved for him in a role-playing exercise. At the center of the play is a scene in which (in the original, a boy-actor playing) a woman who is disguised as a man pretends to be a woman (in fact, herself) in order to teach her leading man how to be more genuine and assertive. It is a feat of real skill to keep all these levels clear—especially when the characters get them confused. Tromovitch handled this scene as cleverly as I have ever seen it, with Salazar's befuddled Orlando becoming increasingly confused about who, exactly, he is falling in love with—the girl or the boy.
Things work out predictably for the couple, and for several other couples that provide variations on the theme in a series of related subplots, but not until the inevitable ending has been delayed as long as possible by the loose diversions found in a summer paradise.
It takes a lot of work to make this all happen but Tromovitch achieves it all with such a light touch that her direction is essentially invisible. Looking back, the engaging evening flew past but felt as indulgent as a chocolate truffle. Strong performances from Patrick Andrew Jones as Orlando's reforming older brother, William J. Wolak as his faithful servant, and Lindsey Marie Schmeltzer as an overly proud local yokel who falls in love with Rosalind's male alter ego proved high points.
The cast was not universally strong, which showed particularly in some unconvincing doublings that were neither executed with versatility on their own terms nor justified in their undisguised reuse of actors by a performance convention. Also, as is often the case, some of the more dated farcical parts of the play that have lost their point over time became strained searching for a laugh.
The performance had far more strengths than weaknesses, however. It was a perfect match of venue and play—a light midsummer comedy in an intimate, casual park-like setting. Only the hardest of hearts could possibly resist the swift and glorious ending.
A Company to Watch
Perhaps it is assuming too much to think that the marvelous sympathy between directorial approach and the leading actress' strengths has anything to do with their shared gender. Maybe it is just Tromovitch's directorial skills, and not her particular insights into this woman-focused play, that get the tone of this intricate comedy so right. Conceivably, the particularly invitational, friendly environment established in the new venue is the product of good audience engagement research and has nothing to do with the sensibilities of an all-female management team. It is worth contemplating, however, whether more than coincidence is at work. Let's keep our eye on Livermore Shakespeare Festival to see if women's leadership continues to provide unique results!