In an age when to be local is to be connected to the community—the rise of locally -sourced food and farmers’ markets springs to mind—local theatre offers an opportunity for homegrown entertainment. The suburban-rural community of Chesapeake, Virginia ushers in the summer by making use of local space and local actors with a free, outdoor performance of As You Like It, staged as part of 'Shakespeare in the Grove'.
Shakespeare in the Grove is an outgrowth of Tidewater Community College’s theatre department, having performed a Shakespearean play in ‘the grove’ (a parking lot followed by a flat expanse of thick grass bounded by some trees) for the past fourteen years. Wooden placards nailed to the two poles that hold the lights detail a production history rich in the comedies (except for last year’s Macbeth and 2006’s Romeo and Juliet). Indeed, As You Like It was performed during the Grove’s first season in 1997. Friends, couples, families—young and old—turn out with lawn chairs, blankets, food baskets, and—a necessity for Virginia in the summertime—copious amounts of bug spray. The insects prove more problematic than simple bites, as the actors have difficulty at times being heard over the rising noise of the cicadas.
Director Edwin Jacob chooses a 1960s-era treatment for the text. While not fully developed, it allows for some humorous moments and the inclusion of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’, sung by Larry Von Nostrand, who provides live guitar music throughout the show. The setting is most effective once the action moves to the Forest of Arden, where Duke Senior (Charlie Conover in a chill and mellow performance) and his followers are cast as nature-loving hippies. Their first appearance involves a song, complete with guitar, flute, tambourine and the suggestion that some of the forest’s delights may not be entirely legal. The subsequent discussion about the killing of a deer becomes an advertisement for the benefits of vegetarianism.
Matthew Gorris’ set is made up of wooden panels atop a raised stage—the panels painted in blues and browns to give a generic feeling of a forest. Several doors provide for the (numerous) entrances and exits, underscoring the play’s famous speech: ‘All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances…’
Acting is uneven at times, with either too much gesticulation or too strong an emphasis placed on the verse meter. Katherine Parker as Rosalind and Bijan Samareh as Orlando play up the dopiness of love at first sight, with Orlando like an eager boy scout and Rosalind more head-in-the-clouds. Russ Staggs and Amber Wood deliver smart turns as Touchstone and the melancholic Jacques, respectively. Staggs carries around a squeaky bicycle horn, which he uses during the punch lines of jokes (most of which he manages to make sense of—no easy task for Shakespeare’s clown characters). It also helps that Staggs is not afraid to underline some of Touchstone’s more sexual humor.
The true delight of the show is Amber Wood as the dour, deeply embittered Jacques. Sarcastic and sour, she brings definition to her character while imbuing her lines with clarity and insight.
Then of course there is the other actor in this comedy—the weather. The temperature alone was 100-degrees Fahrenheit, not to mention the intense humidity. By eight o’clock in the evening when the production began, the temperature had cooled slightly, but the mugginess still created a feeling of being trapped inside a Tennessee Williams play. That the actors manage to demonstrate considerable physicality (it is a shock to see lanky Orlando—Samareh—take down Oliver—Ian Geers —who is twice his size, in one fell swoop) is a testament to the production’s high energy, despite the adverse weather conditions. Costumes help ease some of the burden, as most of Meg Murray’s designs are loose-fitting with unbuttoned shirts, flowing fabrics, and a general hippie aesthetic, nodding to the 1960s-era setting, though Charles the wrestler’s (Brian Wrestler) feather-boa-lined cape strikes a humorous note with the audience.
At a crisp two hours, the production is not particularly challenging and character relationships are not explored in depth, but Shakespeare in the Grove does manage to make for an entertaining evening, finding a mellow bit of good nature in As You Like It.
As You Like It runs June 23 – 27 and July 1 – 2, 2010 at Tidewater Community College, Roper Performing Arts Center – Norfolk Campus, 340 Granby Street, Norfolk, VA 23510. Information can be found at http://www.tcc.edu/academics/divisions/academicc/theatre/Shakespeare.htm.