At Shakespeare & Company, The Bard's Forest of Arden joins the roar of the 1920s

LENOX — Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom refers to "As You Like It" as the Bard's "happiest," "sweetest-tempered" play. He finds its setting, the fictitious Forest of Arden, to be "simply the best place to live, anywhere in Shakespeare." What better location for performances of this "exquisite" (Bloom says) play than Shakespeare & Company's outdoor Roman Garden Theatre?

Discovered on the company's property by artistic director Allyn Burrows last season for his production of "The Tempest," the Roman Garden Theatre, with its arena-style seating, is dominated on two sides by St. Martin's Hall with its art-deco architecture, which is perfect for the court scenes in "As You Like It." Set designer Jim Youngerman will simulate the Forest of Arden by means of "many white birch saplings ... planted in and around the playing space," and eliminating the stage.

Burrows, who is directing this production, explained in an interview that his choice to set the play in the Roaring Twenties stems from his feeling that the era is a natural fit because the play depicts the characters' escape "from the ominous menace of the court to the sublime possibilities of love and new horizons in the countryside." Burrows finds that the intense changes going on in the 1920s mirror this journey from constraint to self-discovery: The passage of the 19th Amendment, the country life/city life dichotomy as Americans flocked to the cities, and the fight over Prohibition. Besides, Burrows said, the 1920s are a boon to the designers: Costume designer Govane Lohbauer looks forward to working with flapper styles in the outdoor space; sound designer/composer Arshan Gailus gets to recreate the liberating energy of the music of that time and the cast will have the opportunity to sing.

Burrows believes that the big question asked by Shakespeare in "As You Like It" is whether love can conquer hate. Demonstrating how the power of love transforms us into better human beings, his characters, who fall in love instantaneously, regret and reverse their evil actions.The cast of only nine actors makes surprising discoveries about these characters as a result of playing multiple roles.

Other characters are re-imagined through cross-gender casting. Touchstone, conventionally a male clown who dispenses advice, is now a governess, played by MaConnia Chesser in her third season at Shakespeare & Company. Her love interest is no longer Audrey but the handsome, love-struck male, Aubrey.

One of the major problems in playing a Shakespearean clown is the density of the language. What was witty in Elizabethan times doesn't always translate to modern audiences. The actors need to be "super specific": they look up every word and take nothing for granted. To help them personalize each line, Burrows does an exercise called "para play," in which the actors go through the play speaking their own words. They must be equally adept at making sense of the language and allowing it to "fly off the page."

Aimee Doherty, an award-winning actress in her Shakespeare & Company debut, plays the central character, Rosalind. Bloom calls her "vital and beautiful, in spirit, in body, in mind. She has no equal, in or out of Arden." In his view, Rosalind is the most gifted of all Shakespeare's comic heroines. How does Doherty approach a character who appears to be perfect? The actress, on the contrary, finds her "beautifully imperfect." She observes that Shakespeare, ahead of his time in creating a female character to helm his play, gives her complexity, flaws and all. She can be deceitful, which causes her to make wrong decisions: for example, too frightened to give her heart to Orlando, whom she adores, she disguises herself as a young man for most of the play in order to test his love — a ploy that Celia (Rosalind's cousin, daughter of Duke Frederick and cousin of Rosalind's father, the banished Duke Senior) and the audience recognize as totally unnecessary.

Shakespeare & Company makes it easy to enjoy The Roman Garden Theatre. Commencing at 5 p.m., performances will run approximately two hours. The theater is wheelchair accessible, has sun shades, is close to the Tina Packer Playhouse, where there are bathrooms, a bar, and picnic tables. Refreshments may be brought into the theater and if the weather is inclement, the performance can move to the nearby tented Rose Theatre.


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