For nearly twenty years, the Hampshire Shakespeare Company has provided theater-goers in the Pioneer Valley with their requisite summer fix of outdoor Shakespeare. Their latest offering, a fast-paced production of As You Like It, staged on the lawn (and patio, and fire escape) of the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies at U. Mass., shows what can be done, lean and mean, with a well-directed company and a good setting. (On other nights the show is staged at the Hartsbrook School in Hadley.)
Of course, this work in particular benefits from an outdoor setting. One of Shakespeare’s “green world” comedies, As You Like It features shenanigans in the woods, with disguised lovers, amorous shepherds, exiled courtiers, and a wayward fool all crossing paths. But the play has, from the start, other, darker elements. While we may spend much of our time surrounded by nature, the actions and emotions that propel the characters into the woods are perverse and unnatural: our young hero, Orlando (Scott Ardizzone) is persecuted by his elder brother Oliver (Sean Landers) for no good reason, as Oliver readily admits: “ . . . my soul, yet I know not why, hates nothing more than he.” Oliver will shortly conspire to burn his brother alive, leading a loyal old family retainer to cry, “this house is but a butchery.” Duke Frederick, who has usurped his elder brother’s place (Dennis Quinn plays both roles), sinks deeper into resentment and exiles his own niece, Rosalind (Marina Morrow) under threat of death. The production gives due weight to this warping of family bonds, of natural order, in a world where expected love has turned inexplicably to hatred.
The challenge in producing this comedy is to maintain the balance between those natural and unnatural elements. The director, Chris Rohmann, here experiments with ways to make manifest the “magic” of the forest, a world that will restore order and family harmony just as suddenly as it was taken away. (Both evil brothers will undergo miraculous conversions to goodness). The forest of Arden, in this production, is peopled with ragged, chirruping forest sprites (played by teenage girls), who monitor the action closely and provide an on-stage audience. A bit of an import from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they might have served as a distraction from the key players; ultimately, however, I think they worked, functioning as embodiments of the forest’s power and vitality. This “conjuring” effect is reiterated in other ways, notably in the technique of having characters, when quoted at key moments by others, appear at the periphery to recite their own lines. Thus, when we first hear from a courtier of Jacques’ moralizing over a wounded deer, he speaks his own quoted lines from among the audience; and so it is when Jacques, delightedly recounting how he “met a fool in the forest,” in turn quotes Touchstone. Such experiments in Shakespeare production can be unwelcome; here they came across as to the point. For this is a comedy featuring divided selves as well as divided families, a play in which characters may play roles, may speak to please and “convert” others, and may even try to, as it were, script and direct the words and actions of others (Rosalind is a prime offender here, with Touchstone close behind). The very title directs our attention to this feature. The innovations in this staging highlight the intensely performative nature of the action: the characters themselves have multiple audiences in the forest, and can be called forth by their cues to read their lines.
The unusual elements here succeeded in part, I think, due to what was otherwise a no-nonsense approach to acting style and line readings. While there is much antic behavior and physical business in the play, the production was thankfully free of the excessive shouting, mugging and pantomime one finds all too often in stagings of Shakespeare’s comedies. Touchstone can be a prime offender, but as realized by Nicholas Dahlman he had real wit, making good use of his one prop, a Shakespeare puppet on a stick (another elegant occasion of fractured personality, mirrored selves ). His counterweight in the comedy, Jacques, was played with a suitably laconic and aloof manner by Matteo Pangallo. I could have wished him a bit more melancholy. In the case of the lovers, the emphasis was on their goofy energy, improvisations, even ineptitude (Orlando’s bad poetry always delights); of particular merit were Lianne O’Shea’s tiny, cranky Audrey and Chris Junno’s cow-eyed, slow-talking Silvius, who provide a mirror of sorts to the high-born lovers in their fervent longings.