Elaborately and creatively choreographed dance in an Elizabethan style is the highlight of Head Trick Theatre’s outdoor production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Because most of this light comedy is set in a forest, it is one of the most popular Shakespeare plays for in-the-park performance. I’ve seen at least a dozen versions over the years and every company puts their own spin on it, some emphasizing the witty dialogue, some emphasizing the music and dance, some the gender fluidity of the characters, and some the physical comedy.
Using period music with Armand Aromin on violin and Marion Anderson on recorder, the actors and ensemble perform a variety of folk dances reminiscent of the English morris and country styles, often with wooden swords and other props. (A relationship with the prominently featured sponsor Country Dance and Song Society many have something to do with this.) The dancing is interesting and skilled enough to constitute its own entertainment apart even from the play, and it truly distinguishes Head Trick Theatre’s interpretation.
To quickly introduce the convoluted plot, usurper Duke Frederick (Adam Florio) has exiled his elder brother Duke Senior (also Florio) with his family to the forest of Arden, all except his daughter Rosalind (Christine Pavao) because she is the closest friend of Frederick’s daughter Celia (Susan Chakmakian). A young gentleman, Orlando (Rebecca Magnotta), who is likewise dispossessed by his brother Oliver (Tom Duke) falls in love with Rosalind at first sight. As a result of a wrestling match against Frederick’s champion Charles (Jhomphy Ventura), attended by Frederick and his henchman Le Beau (Ian Hudgins), Orlando must himself flee into the forest with his trusted elderly servant Adam (Robert Perry who replaced Robert Smith). Rosalind and Celia also decide to seek out the Duke Senior, Rosalind’s father, in the forest, and they disguise themselves, Rosalind as the male “Ganymede” in men’s clothing and Celia as the female “Aliena” in beggar women’s clothing, traveling with the court jester Touchstone (Shawn Fennell).
While Rosalind and Celia encounter a shepherd Corin (Carolyn Coughlin) and buy his master’s farm, Orlando and Adam encounter the melancholy Jaques (Robbi Scruggs) who is among the court of the Duke Senior in exile along with Amiens (Kerri Lamothe). Orlando, sick with love for Rosalind, has been writing bad love poems that he is posting on trees in the forest, and eventually “Ganymede” (who is really Rosalind although Orlando doesn’t realize it) offers to play-act the role of Rosalind to mistreat him and spurn his entreaties in order to “cure” him of his love sickness. Shepherd boy Silvius (Katie O’Rourke) has fallen in love with Country girl Phoebe (Lexie Lankiewicz), but she instead is infatuated with “Ganymede.” The witty Touchstone falls in love with simple-minded country girl Audrey (Alijah Dickenson), and even Orlando’s elder brother Oliver has become a changed man by falling in love with “Aliena,” the disguised Celia. In other words, nothing is complicated, and “unrequited” is the flavor of the day.
Among a solid cast presenting a solid performance, a few stand out.
Shawn Fennell is outstanding as the fool Touchstone. This is the first time I recall seeing Fennell in a non-experimental play, although strangely all but one of those experimental plays were Shakespearean-ish, once in The Shakespeare Play where he was one of six actors sharing the role of Hamlet and once in MAC where he was half of a duo in a half-hour FringePVD reconceptualization of Macbeth as a series of playing-card tricks. Tall and lanky, Fennell exaggerates a conscious and deliberate physical awkwardness that plays into the grace of a character who is, after all, literally a clown. I half-expected him to begin dancing “The Lobster Quadrille” having seen him in Andre Gregory’s Alice in Wonderland previously. Touchstone is a challenging role that offers an actor an extraordinary opportunity to display originality and range. Mark Carter’s performance a couple of years ago for The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater (TRIST) was the best work I’ve ever seen him do, but Carter’s and Fennell’s interpretations are polar opposites, Carter emphasizing the cynical side and Fennell emphasizing the playful side of the character.
Adam Florio is captivating in his alternation between the evil and good dukes, portraying the former with a top hat and the latter bare-headed. Susan Chakmakian turned the subordinate role of Celia into more than it usually is, dancing along the fine line between uncompromising cheerfulness and absurdity.
Christine Pavao as Rosalind shines a spotlight onto the indeterminate gender of the character, and there is no way to “play it straight” – pardon an anachronistically post-Shakespearean pun – as much of the comedy of the play was intended to be grounded in the absurdity of a male actor in Shakespeare’s day playing the role of a woman disguised as a man.
I attended a 2pm Sunday performance, which turned out to be a mistake for me: At that hour, the sun was beating down mercilessly and raising temperatures above 90F as part of what would turn out to be the first official heat wave in years. I tried to prepare by applying sunblock and bringing a lawn chair equipped with a canopy, but I still felt as if I had spent an afternoon in the desert. I consumed over a liter of the water I brought with me. (Bottles of water were for sale also.) The trees surrounding the field began to provide shade just as the play was ending. There were other people who seemed to be enjoying themselves laid out on blankets in full sun as if they were at the beach (but they were not me), so keep the weather in mind for this outdoor performance.
As You Like It by William Shakespeare, directed by Rebecca Maxfield, Head Trick Theatre, performed outdoors in a grassy clearing in Blackstone Park directly across the street from the Narragansett Boat Club, 2 River Rd., Providence, RI. Sat (8/29) and Sun (8/30), 2pm. Supported by NEFFA and the Outreach Fund of the Country Dance and Song Society. Suggested donation $5. Recommended to bring lawn chairs or blanket/tarp. Handicap accessible.
IMPORTANT: Blackstone Park is on the East Side of Providence between Blackstone Boulevard and the Seekonk River; it is nowhere near the Blackstone River and should not be confused with Blackstone River State Park.
Country Dance and Song Society web site: cdss.org/home.html