Wrestling with Shakespeare

The cast of As You Like It, try as it might, never managed to find its footing on opening night of the 2000 Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. With a hodgepodge of acting styles and varied levels of comfort with the text, compounded by distracting snafus with the microphones, the production reminded me of a hamster in a Habitrail — round and round it goes, alas, to nowhere. Philip blue owl Hooser’s preshow lecture, which referenced everything from Greek pederasty to The Beverly Hillbillies, was more entertaining.

The elements certainly were there to engage the audience in this beloved but ultimately shallow tale of sibling rivalry and unrequited love: a handsome hero (Chad Jason Scheppner), a plucky heroine (Elizabeth Robbins), a witty fool (Walter Coppage), and assorted servants, dukes, and peasants. It virtually pours on the possibilities, with no less than four pairs striving to couple. With the exception of Coppage’s clown and Cinnamon Schultz’s buxom shepherdess, both of whom do attain a spark of carnality, the electricity is sufficiently dampened to produce utter apathy.

The playing field is given to actors who can’t seem to pin down the mood of the tale. Tragedy? Comedy? Flip a coin and one side gives us Kari Whalgren as a bimbo and Robert Gibby Brand as yet another fop. Minutes later, there’s James Shelby’s pontificating Duke Senior and the wind machine of Michael Ryan’s Duke Frederic. And there’s a shameless courting of WWF fans with Orlando’s taking on a hooded wrestler in a match that, on or off the mat, is entirely too long (and an idea that might have been better left as just that). As You Like It is goulash in jodhpurs.

Before the action moves to the Forest of Arden, Gene Emerson Friedman’s set is a bare stage boxed in on three sides by gray curtains. To move from the city to the country, actors enter with big hooks and basically invert the floor, revealing flora, fauna, and a working stream that had been hidden beneath the boards. Add sound designer Tom Mardikes’ wild jungle calls and you’ve got an awe-inspiring transformation that — without a peep of text — is the best scene in the play.

As You Like It
through July 16

at Heart of America Shakespeare Festival

Southmoreland Park, 47th and Oak streets

816-889-7827, ext. 5011

Categories: A&E