Optimist Theater stages a transformative “As You Like It”
Kadish Park may be where this year's Shakespeare in the Park show begins, but you leave this exquisite production from a veritable Forest of Arden.
Today, Riverwest’s Kadish Park is as flat and open as a good city-skyline park should be, but Thursday night, Optimist Theatre transformed it into a true wilderness, Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, with a masterfully done production of the romance/comedy As You Like It.
It helps that director Tom Reed and the greater majority of the Optimist cast and crew have done this before. (Reed played Macbeth last year, and is associate artistic director of the company besides.) But mere experience isn’t enough to sell Shakespeare; it takes talent to adequately convey one of his comedies, and the cast of As You Like It is packed from top to bottom with the skill necessary.
Which is especially good since As You Like It is, like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, an ensemble piece. True, it has its main lovers – in this case, the witty, decisive Rosalind (Kristin Hammargren) and the starstruck, headstrong Orlando (Clayton Hamburg) – but most of the characters in their orbit are equally as significant to the action onstage and require an equal measure of attention.
The plot follows the two, separately, as they join a variety of individuals exiled to the untamed Forest of Arden by a paranoid, despotic Duke (James Fletcher, also playing an exiled twin Duke). Orlando, a wealthy family’s youngest son who has been effectively disinherited by his brother (David Franz), flees to the woods, where he writes his Rosalind love poems upon trees; Rosalind, the exiled Duke’s daughter, is banished for potential treason and disguises herself as a man, traveling with her cousin Celia (Sara Zientek) and the play’s resident fool, Touchstone (Todd Denning).
Laid out line by line in a script, this seems like hardly a collection of scenes to fill a play; in performance, it all expands effortlessly, like an origami balloon. While both Hammargren and Hamburg are a little wooden in their earlier scenes, set within the city, by the time they reach the forest they settle into their roles, and their flirtatious banter – largely driven by Hammargren, who takes easily to the dynamic – is one of the production’s highlights.
But to focus too much on Rosalind and Orlando is to miss a great deal of what Optimist has to offer. There is as much glee to be found in Christopher Elst’s larger-than-life portrayal of a Renaissance Fair-meets-WWE wrestling actor as in any other role on stage. The “romance” portrayed by Evan Koepnick and Tess Cinpinski, between a starry-eyed, head-over-heels shepherd and the woman who couldn’t care less about him, is given the same significance as the play’s others, although the play’s intermission makes it feel more like a second-half afterthought than it otherwise might. And there are more relationships than the play’s romances to admire – the rich, realistic friendship between Rosalind and Celia is exquisitely done by Hammargren and especially Zientek, and the play’s two fool-archetypes (the actual jester Touchstone and a comically melancholy forester named Jacques, played by Patrick Lawlor) make the most of their back-and-forth, shifting their scenes from time-fillers to vital moments.
There’s almost too much of a good thing out at Kadish Park, though. I loved almost every minute of As You Like It, but there were so many of them – the play clocks in at about two-and-a-half hours, so with a 15-minute intermission we finally walked out at about 11 p.m. from an 8 p.m. start time. That’s too long for a comedy, even a Shakespearean one, and it could be too late to be wandering around Riverwest if you’re not familiar with the area.
Excepting that, what reason have I to steer you away from such a delightful production? As ever, Optimist has put together a strong cast and a stronger production, and Shakespeare in the Park comes but once a year.
Optimist Theatre’s free production of As You Like It runs through July 21 at Riverwest’s Kadish Park. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., although seating opens up at 7 p.m. Bringing in food, drink and lawn seating (chairs and/or blankets) is encouraged.