Shotgun Players simplify and soar in likable `As You Like It' Three 1/2 Stars - Enchanted
In true troubadour fashion, Berkeley's Shotgun Players begin their production of ``As You Like It" with a few songs. They also clamber through the picnicking audience in character telling jokes and riffing with audience members on the subject of falling in love. The children in attendance last Saturday had some especially illuminating thoughts on the topic.
From the very start, with the music and the interactive improvisations, this ``As You Like It," the last free ``in the park" Shakespeare of the season, is irresistible.
One of Shakespeare's most beguiling romantic comedies, ``As You Like It" is perfectly suited to a park setting. In this case, the Shakespeare's Arden Woods are well played by John Hinkel Park in North Berkeley.
Director Patrick Dooley strips the play to its barest essentials: an extremely winning cast of 12 all dressed in black save for a few adornments to help the audience keep all the characters straight, vigorous staging and absolutely no set.
When actors aren't needed in a scene, they sit on one of two benches just behind the performance space and watch, chuckle and sip water like everyone else in the audience.
Dooley uses the space wonderfully and has his actors make great use of the many interesting entrance and exit opportunities afforded by the hilly glen that surrounds the rustic amphitheater. And by starting the show at 4 p.m., Dooley takes full advantage of the dappled sunlight that begins pouring onto the stage about an hour into the play. The lighting design by Mother Nature is superb.
How astonishing it is that with so little flourish, and by putting an emphasis on the language, that Shakespeare's world can come so fully to life. This ``As You Like It" is crisp, funny and never once hard to follow.
Like other Shakespeare plays (most notably ``A Midsummer Night's Dream"), this one has a group of disparate people running into the woods to discover love and who they really are. There's a fairy tale quality to this noble, tenderhearted and quite amusing tale. Dooley and his actors capture this feeling splendidly.
Rosalind (Beth Donohue) is banished from the Duke's palace, so she disguises herself as a boy and runs to the woods with her cousin Celia (Juliet Tanner) and clown Touchstone (a giddy Christopher Kuckenbaker).
Orlando (Ryan Gowland), who will fall in love with Rosalind on first sight, defeats the Duke's heretofore undefeated wrestling champion Charles (Danny Wolohan) and must run into the woods to protect himself.
Also banished to the woods is the good-hearted former Duke Senior (played by Gene Thompson, who also plays the nasty reigning Duke Frederick) and his merry band of men.
Among the Duke's coterie is Jacques (Jeff Elam), a melancholy, pessimistic sort who gets to deliver Shakespeare's famous ``seven ages of man" soliloquy that begins, ``All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." Elam sits casually in the audience and offers the speech with a quiet, rueful dignity.
Trish Mullholland, Reid Davis, Greg Lucey and Michelle Talgarow are great fun as a group of country folk, by turns lusty and lovestruck, who add to the amorous activities of the Arden encampment.
The performances are all delightful, but Donohue is worthy of special mention. Her full-bodied performance as Rosalind carries the play and gives it a strength and compassion that contrasts nicely with the plot's more outrageous comic elements.
At several points throughout the three-hour show, the characters kick up their heels in a musical frenzy. Dooley's use of songs adds an extra level of zest to the proceedings.
The musical accompaniment by Daniel Bruno on percussion, Gowland on guitar and Donohue on fiddle feels completely organic and seems inseparable from the enchanted goings-on in the Berkeley branch of the Arden Woods.
Don't let your summer end without paying a visit.
theater in the round, this is in nature
HOW FAR CAN YOU GO in undressing a dramatic work of its conventional trappings -- scenery, costumes, lighting -- to get at the naked story in a way that makes any sense to the audience?
Forget about reading a play. That's ground zero, a silent, solitary pursuit for an audience of one, devoid of gussying up, save for the reader's imagination. Unless you move your lips and mumble the words, reading a play rarely rises to the level of performance art.
We're talking about theater that people can physically experience. Surprisingly, that only requires the addition of just one other dimension: movement or sound.
Radio drama -- now mostly soaps -- used sound alone to bring us some great theater when it reached its pinnacle in the 1950s.
Far older is mime, performance that achieves its effects with the other option -- silent movement. What would happen if we stepped up to level two by combining movement and sound, but adding nothing else in the way of staging?
Shotgun Players will try to answer that question with Shakespeare's "As You Like It," opening Friday in the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts for a single paid benefit performance. It will then go on to John Hinkle Park for free shows on Saturday and Sunday afternoons through Oct. 8.
"'As You Like It' was chosen this year because, like many of Shakespeare's comedies/love stories, it is perfect for outdoor production," writes Shotgun member Mary Eaton Fairchild.
"John Hinkle Park, with its over-arching eucalyptus trees, babbling brook and sunken valley terrain offers the delightful impression of a world enclosed by nature. And in Shakespeare, nature is magic. And magic in theater is only possible when we allow our imaginations to rule."
So get ready to dress the bare amphitheater stage as richly as you please in your mind's eye.
Admire the artistry of the leafy backdrop. The trees look as if you could actually go up and hug one. Of course, you could. They're real, not painted.
This is theater stripped of all artifice, save two: the voicing of a clearly grasped text and the thrusts of the appropriate physical gestures.
Shorn of the usual layering, it's broken down to the lowest common denominators of sound and movement.
Friday's debut at the Julia Morgan, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley, starts at 8 p.m., followed by a reception with food, drink and lots of schmoozing. Tickets for this performance are $20 general; $10 for seniors, students and members of Theatre Bay Area. All East Bay park performances start at 4 p.m. and are free.
One Sunday performance at 1 p.m. is scheduled for San Francisco's McLaren Park, Visitacion Valley Road, on Sept. 10.