"As You Like It"
Bridgeport Free Shakespeare, Beardsley Park Zoo, Bridgeport
Beardsley Park Zoo is the place to be on a summer night—specifically the Peacock Pavilion, where director Ellen Lieberman and company have set up shop in a woodsy grove. This exuberant young troupe—Bridgeport Free Shakespeare—offers up its own version of “As You Like It.” Think “Hair.” Think “Godspell.” Think flower children. Think Beatles songs and folk tunes. Think wandering minstrels who strum guitars. Think partying and love-ins and the joys of nature. Amazingly Lieberman has remained true to the spirit (and the text) of Shakespeare’s rustic comedy while moving into the Age of Aquarius. The result, as it turns out, is sheer magic.
Of course it helps that this corner of the zoo, with its park-like setting, features picnic tables and a concession stand and other amenities. One can comfortably dine al fresco while watching the antics on stage. And the peacocks strut across stage at unexpected moments, upstaging the actors and heightening the ambience. It is an ambience that pours off the stage and into the audience, making for intimacy and involvement. Particularly at intermission, as players wander through the grounds, the audience becomes part of it all.
But this does not lower the standards. This theater, as it happens, turns out highly-professional first-class work. Equity theater in our own back yard—or rather Beardsley’s yard.
Lieberman has chosen to give a stylized version of “As You Like It,” with characters playing their roles in clownish, exaggerated manner. Granted that this results in spastic gestures at times, and one wishes Lieberman would tone down such moments. But mostly we have scenes that work well as the production comes together. Particularly appealing are Jennifer Mercein and Joshua Vink as the young lovers Rosalind and Orlando. And Liliane Klein and Dan Renkin are wildly funny as Audrey and Touchstone respectively.
But star of the show (if one dares to choose a star) is music director Eric Nyquist who turns the night into music, as he strums the guitar. He gets able support from fellow guitarist Dan Wheaton and others who join in the ‘60s lyrics. It is the music which keeps the show on such a high, enhancing the story and the players.
The story, like many a Shakespeare comedy, has to do with a good Duke (banished) and a bad Duke (in power). It has to do with an idyllic pastoral scene (in the Forest of Arden). It has to do with falling in love at first sight (“who ever loved that loved not at first sight….”). It has to do with love poems tacked on trees. It has to do with disguises and courtships and righting all wrongs. Naturally, it all ends happily, with the marriage of four couples, and the rightful Duke returned to power.
Under Lieberman’s inspired direction, this tale gets a charmed—and indeed unique—production, not to be missed. Pack your picnic supper, grab your blankets, your sweaters, your chairs, and head for the Zoo.
-- Irene Backalenick
July 24, 2005