When screenwriter/director Preston Sturges made a name for himself with screen comedies in the 30s and 40s, he established a corps of supporting players. Frankin Pangborn, Jimmy Conlin, William Demarest, Esther Howard, Robert Dudley, Eric Blore... They weren't leading actors, but they were vivid and funny, making Sturges' movies really memorable. They also kept the tone light and charming, even when Sturges dipped into darker issues, putting them on chain gangs or standing in line for a soup kitchen.
That's the approach director James Alexander Bond takes with his production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, which is, not coincidentally, set in a 1930s world of society beauties, impetuous swains, local yokels, and a coterie of down-on-their-luck good guys hanging out in the forest away from it all. That means that this "As You Like It" looks and feels a bit like the Preston Sturges version of Shakespeare. Which is, as it turns out, an excellent idea.
In the Sturges vein, Bond has made the background players just as lively as the leads. Yes, leading lady Rosalind, who takes off from court to hide in the woods disguised as a boy, and her love interest, Orlando, another runaway, are the center of the story. Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's most appealing heroines, and Gracyn Mix is lithe and lovely in the role. Mix and Dylan Paul, as Orlando, make a charming pair of lovers, showing lots of romantic chemistry and painting engaging characters individually.
Mix is tall enough to make her stint in boys' clothes at least as masculine as, say, Justin Bieber, and Paul nicely charts Orlando's course, so that we can always tell what he knows and when he knows it, who he loves and when he loves her.
But, just like in the best Sturges' pics, this pair of lovers are buoyed by the crazy character actors around them, from Henson Keys' double roles as old faithful Adam, Orlando's servant, and a down-home hick in rolled-up overalls, to Alexander Pawlowsky, funny as both a puffed-up champion wrestler (he sports an impressive mustache and a circus strong man look) and a very dim country bumpkin, Charlie Wright as a lovestruck shepherd, Lisa Wartenberg as the peevish object of his affections, Molly Rose Lewis as a lusty rustic, Zack Powell going all Truman Capote as a courtier named LeBeau and then turning up as a Hymen (the god of marriage) seemingly beamed down from the Starship Enterprise, and Nick Demeris, managing to make Touchstone, the one George Bernard Shaw called Shakespeare's most tiresome clown, somehow not tiresome at all. Each character is tart and sharp, adding energy and comedy.
The contributions of a band of wandering musicians are also welcome, with Andy Talen leading the way with vocals and guitar, bringing a little bit of bluegrass into Arden. And the hoe-down dances performed during the evening work quite well, too.
Jacques, the one who has the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech, is usually portrayed as a brooding, melancholy misanthrope amidst the romantic comedy. But here, Daver Morrison creates a completely unique Jacques, one who has a sort of Grand Thespian way of speaking, as if he were a one-time actor turned away from the stage, still harkening to his former days in the spotlight, but decidedly more down at the heels. It's quite a fascinating Jacques, making his take on "All the world's a stage" that much richer.
Rachel Laritz's costumes are properly pretty for the time the ladies spend in court, and effectively countrified when they move into Arden, which seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of the Ozarks in this production. John Stark's scenic design, with trees that change from an apple orchard to a forest, adds a cheerful background to the proceedings and lights up nicely when it's time for that Star Trek invasion. (I know it seems strange that there would be a visit from a starship there at the end, but Shakespeare's text does include a curious visit from other-worldly Hymen to bless the marriages being performed, so... A "Star Trek" approach works about as well as any.)
|Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in "Sullivan's Travels"|
AS YOU LIKE IT
By William Shakespeare
Illinois Shakespeare Festival
at Ewing Manor
Director: James Alexander Bond
Costume Designer: Rachel Laritz
Scenic Designer: John Stark
Lighting Designer: Julie Mack
Sound Designer/Composer: Michael Rasbury
Stage Manager: Jayson T. Waddell
Voice/Text Coach: Kevin Rich
Fight Director/Choreographer: Alex Miller
Dance Choreographer: Greg Merriman
Cast: Dylan Paul, Henson Keys, David Price, Andrew Rogalny, Jr, Alexander Pawlowski IV, Amanda Catania, Gracyn Mix, Nick Demeris, Zack Powell, Matt Penn, Charlie Wright, Kate McDermott, Trevon Jackson, Andy Talen, Devon Nimerfroh, Michael Gamache, David Sitler, Daver Morrison, Molly Rose Lewis and Lisa Wartenberg.
Remaining performances: July 1, 6, 8, 12, 14, 20, 27 and August 1, 5, 7, 11
For ticket information, click here.