Outdoor theater, much like painting en plein air or dining al fresco, is a special experience. In the former, the light is clearer, brighter; in the latter, the food tastes better. But a theatrical performance under the stars—notwithstanding the occasional dive-bombing firefly, the hungry mosquito or the intermittent low-flying corporate jet—has a magic all its own. The Greeks may have gone in for tragedy at high noon, but a Shakespearean comedy at the close of day is near perfection.
And no professional company does outdoor comic theater better than the Shakespeare Company of New Jersey at the Greek amphitheater on the bucolic campus of the College of St. Elizabeth. This summer, they have tackled one of Shakespeare's loopiest comedies, As You Like It, in a full production (instead of their usual family-friendly 90-minute versions). The result: an effervescent romp through the Forest of Arden, complete with feuding brothers (two sets!), good people sent into exile because of jealousy, a woman disguised as a man who falls in love with another man, some dimwitted shepherds and shepherdesses and even a flock of sheep!
The convoluted plot of As You Like It follows the lovely Rosalind as she flees her uncle's persecution, accompanied by her cousin Celia and the court jester Touchstone, to the Forest of Arden. Similarly, a young gentleman of the kingdom, Orlando, escapes his evil brother Oliver's persecution, accompanied by Adam, his faithful elderly servant, to hide in the same forest. To complicate matters, before their flight, Rosalind and Orlando fall in love at a wrestling match in the ducal court (above right); things really get crazy when the two meet again at the camp where the usurped Duke (Rosalind's father) lives with a band of loyal lords. There, Rosalind, disguised as a male youth named Ganymede, instructs Orlando, now madly writing goofy love poems to her and posting them on trees, how to woo his lady—in this case, herself—to the audience’s merriment! Similar wooings among the rustics (and Touchstone) are tempered by the melancholic musings of the dour Jacques. In the end, all gets sorted out, and multiple simultaneous weddings bring the mayhem to a happy close.
For the 50th production she has directed, Bonnie J. Monte has set this convoluted comedy in the Renaissance era on a multipurpose set designed by Jonathan Wentz that utilizes a revolving turntable (pushed by actors) with a stand of poplar trees for the forest on one side and a formal room in a ducal palace on the other. With a few flags, some drapery swags and lanterns, scenes are changed quickly and evocatively. The action swirls smoothly on and off the playing space, with actors making entrances from the wingsand even from the top of the amphitheater’s semi-circle of seats. Paul Canada's lavish costumes enhance the effect, and the music composed for the script’s two songs, “Under the Greenwood Tree” and “Hey, Nonny Nonny,” sound like they could have come directly from Elizabeth I's court.
The two pairs of feuding brothers are real pieces of work. Jordan Laroya is appropriately nasty as the evil Oliver de Boys, who mistreats his youngest brother, the innocent and good Orlando, played with winning gentleness by Matthew Simpson. As Duke Frederick, Bruce Cromer is greed made manifest, a wonderful foil for the Old Duke, played with idealistic benevolence by the same Bruce Cromer, who even manages to find good in being thrown out of the court. On the distaff side, Caralyn Kozlowski (above, left) positively glows as Rosalind; when she is pretending—barely—to be a young man, while struggling to conceal her womanly ardor for Orlando, she is masterful. And because we are in on the joke, her "performance" as Ganymede is especially delightful. As her confidante, Maria Tholl's Celia (above, right) exudes loyalty and comic boredom while watching her cousin teach Orlando how to woo.
The wise fool, Touchstone, is played by Robert Clohessy (right), with a wise guy attitude and a barely detectable New York accent and expressive face that make his jests sound like grand philosophical observations. He is especially hilarious in his infatuation with the milkmaid Audrey, played with delicious dimness by Kristen Kittel.
As Jaques, the melancholic philosopher-courtier who accompanies the Old Duke into exile, Greg Jackson (right, with Matthew Simpson as Orlando) conveys a nagging cynicism and dislike for pastoral life, running on about the rather unlovely “Seven Ages of Man,” perhaps the play's most famous speech. The antidote to the idyllic life in the forest, Jackson is never so disagreeable as to be unlikeable. Raphael Nash Thompson as the wise old shepherd Corin (above, left) and Craig Bazan as the goofy young Silvius (courting the shepherdess Phebe, played by a spirited Jennifer Mogbock), embody the gentle rustic life well, especially the latter when he is being taught to woo by Touchstone. Benjamin Sterling is appropriately boastful as a muscle bound the wrestler, and Dan Bound-Black is very funny as the foppish Frenchman, Le Beau. And the five young actors who portray the sheep are to be commended for their convincing baaa's and proficient ability to crawl around on all fours!
Andrew Hungerford's lighting aptly indicates the passage of time and change of place. Rick Sordelet's nimble fight choreography is on full display when Orlando and Oliver duke it out and Orlando tangles with the much stronger and more proficient Charles.
On one level light and silly, As You Like It contains some of Shakespeare’s loveliest poetry and songs, brilliant themes and joyous odes affirming that life is good. So pull yourself away from the 24/7 news cycle, grab the older kids and head off to a fairy tale world where "life is most jolly." I think you will like it!
As You Like It will be performed at the College of St. Elizabeth's Greek Theatre, 2 Convent Road in Morris Township, through July 18. Tuesday through Sunday performances start at 8:15 PM with additional twilight shows on Sundays at 4:30 PM. For information and tickets, call 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org for updated information and directions to the Park Avenue entrance to the College.