"That's a weird set," says my date as we walk to our seats five minutes before Shakespeare By the Seas’ production of As You Like It. I look to the stage and see Astroturf on the floor, upright slats as tree stand-ins, and a bright red ad for a department store above the stage. It's a reminder of what this production company is all about: working with a minimal budget in order to keep entrance to their open-air performances free for all.
While the stage looks slightly depressing, the staging of this pastoral comedy turns out to be quite the opposite. The cast, under the direction of David Graham, delivers a solid and entertaining show throughout. Watching this play about love and lovers makes for a fun evening, well worth braving the crisp sea breeze in Point Fermin Park in San Pedro.
Rosalind, played by Rachel Levy, sets the tone for this production when she instantly falls in love with Orlando. The sight of him sends her into a wide-eyed, hilarious daze. For her—and for all the characters in this play—love infects like a strange disease. Levy is enjoyably silly throughout. She even sticks with this interpretation when she disguises herself as a man and teaches Orlando about love.
More toned down, and also more three-dimensional, is Tosca Minotto's Celia, Rosalind's cousin and best friend. Of all the actors, Minotto seems the most mature. While the cast, in general, overemphasizes and over gestures to various degrees, Minotto gets the job done without the unnecessary flair. Her performance is more nuanced and her range includes quiet sarcasm as well as slapstick.
Dominic Pham as Orlando is a handsome and solid match for his Rosalind. Sarah French gives a wonderfully dumb Audrey who attracts Gedaly Guberek's jester Touchstone with her impossibly large balloon-breasts. Slightly puzzling is the way the director has Suzanne Dean tackle her role of Jaques. Her performance of the famously melancholic character fails to deliver any kind of moodiness. What exactly this version of Jaques stands for is difficult to figure out, and when Dean delivers Jaques’ most famous line, "All the world's a stage," it seems strangely un-special.
Some casting decisions are equally strange. Jim Felton does his very best as the wrestler Charles, yet he is built more like a long-distance runner. So it doesn't actually come as a surprise that Orlando wins the wrestling match in this poorly choreographed slow-motion fight scene. And casting the rather youthful looking Benjamin Clark as the old man, Corin, is just plain awkward when the other characters refer to his old age.
Angel Jones’ costume design is in sync with the general tone of this production. While not particularly thoughtful, it does entertain. Celia wears an elegant gem-adorned gown, and the evil Duke Frederick's breast is covered in oversized medals. The only device that is truly ill-chosen is Rosalind's terrible wig. Rosalind’s credibility as a heroine is seriously compromised by the curly poodle-doo sitting on her head.
As You Like It contains five songs, but in this abbreviated production only two are performed— sung live to recorded harmonies. The resulting sound is a little unbalanced, resulting in what seems like wasted opportunities. There is generally a slight problem with music in this production. Several scenes have an underlying canned sound reminiscent of a movie score. Sometimes the melodies last only for a few seconds to accompany silent action, but sometimes the music is also used as a backdrop for dialogue. The effect is more of a distraction than an enhancement.
Much more satisfying is the way the production makes use of space. The curtainless stage (set design by Aaron Jackson) is cleverly divided into several levels of height. This keeps the motion flowing and adds liveliness to the always-smooth scene transitions. The set is minimal, and has a decidedly barren look. Giant brown leaves adorn the front and back of the stage, and the trees are left without any foliage or even branches. This hardly conveys the idea of a lush forest, but this performance can get away with it because it takes place outdoors. Trees, the birds and the breeze, make up for what the set might lack.
Despite the criticism, this show has drive. The entire cast delivers an energetic and smooth performance. And while this production does not make for a particularly illuminating theatre experience, it still provides a pleasant way to spend a Southern California summer night.