I am old enough to remember many magnificent performances by the Lexington Shakespeare Festival in Woodland Park back in the previous century — I even participated in a couple of them as both actor and musical director.
When the Festival moved to The Arboretum in 1996, I was sad. Yes, it could accommodate many more people, but the wide-open field was a prosaic setting for Shakespeare compared with the beautiful old trees and intimate layout of Woodland Park. Then, a few years ago, the organization, long since reconfigured as SummerFest, moved to the even more quotidian Moondance Amphitheatre at Beaumont Center, out in the suburbs, gaining a good permanent stage surrounded by a lot of concrete.
The tradition of quality summer theater in Lexington has been maintained throughout these moves. And now, for SummerFest 2016, we are back home. The troupe has teamed with Lexington Parks and Recreation to return to Woodland Park for the foreseeable future, beginning this weekend with Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It.
It was thoroughly delightful to sit under the trees and stars Friday night, a temperate breeze wafting the immortal words of the Bard into the comfortable, familiar setting, rendered surreal by the displacement of time. I am very happy for the return of summer theater to Woodland Park.
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The production itself offers many strengths, most of them attributable to the creative ingenuity of director Matthew Lewis Johnson. In a startling reversal of the practice in Shakespeare’s day of casting all roles with men and boys, Johnson has entrusted this gender-bending play to an all-female cast. Although they never quite got me to suspend my disbelief, the concept worked to illuminate the play’s preoccupation with gender roles and stereotypes in new ways.
The leading lady/man/lady, Rosalind, is played with relish by Rachel Rogers, and her Orlando is characterized ardently by Julie McCluskey. They are both excellent, as is their comedic foil, Celia, Rosalind’s companion, portrayed with spunk by Bailey Preston. Bianca Spriggs as Jacques also shines, making the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech the highlight it should be with her vigorous, straightforward delivery. The clowns Touchstone and Audrey are winsomely embodied by Sydney Marks and Kathryn Velonis.
As You Like It is not the best-known of Shakespeare’s plays, and the complicated plot can be hard to follow. So it is incumbent on modern interpreters to enunciate the poetic text with clear diction and dramatic intention. Spriggs and Rogers particularly excelled at the declamatory style, but the rest of the cast was inconsistent on this score, losing much of the text by speedy, naturalistic delivery. Poetry is heightened language and requires a more deliberate and distinct approach to convey the dramatic meaning of metaphorical phrases stretched over several lines of verse.
Another strength of this production is Johnson’s use of the large multi-leveled stage and its totem-like set pieces, the work of Ian Scott and Baxter Wilhelm. Johnson even sends the actresses out into the audience throughout the play, using the park itself to expand the acting area while rendering the audience’s experience that much more intimate. Some of the best crowd moments, like the wrestling scene early on, can be attributed to the skills of fight choreographer Brandon McCoy. The simplistic troubadour music by Jennifer Drake Johnson is not well served by the performers, and it seems at odds with the saxophone jazz that played as pre-show, intermission and post-show music.
Is it a great show? No, but it is good, and anyway, the star of this production is Woodland Park, as it should be. Home, sweet home.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As You Like It June 30-July 3, July 14-17
Jesus Christ Superstar July 7-10, 21-14
Where: Woodland Park, 601 E. High St.
Tickets: $10 general admission, $5 with chair rental.