The Forest of Arden becomes a haven for unregenerate folkies in the Shakespeare/LA version of "As You Like It." Who needs Elizabethan court life, with all that petty familial squabbling, when you can kick back in the woods and sing along to Woody Guthrie, the Weavers and "On Top of Old Smokey"?
Shakespeare's comedy is a 400-year-old wonder that doesn't look a day over 250. It's a five-act love song in itself, sung by many characters but led by Rosalind, who, with the possible exception of Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing," remains the Shakespearean heroine most likely to cause lifelong crushes among her admirers.
Last summer Shakespeare/LA took "Julius Caesar" to the steps of City Hall and other open-air venues. The company strives for populist, portable interpretations of Shakespeare.
Not everything in this 1960s-inflected production works. Even for a low-tech staging, it's visually drab. (General rule of thumb: Condo-style vertical blinds aren't much good for any Shakespeare. Especially when the breezes blow.) It's not a transporting show; it doesn't give off the sort of buzz imparted by certain outdoor Shakespeares, when the world created by the staging folds effortlessly, surprisingly inside the world of the play.
Yet this "As You Like It" wins you over, largely because of its relaxed Pete Seeger vibe. And because Jane Longenecker's Rosalind, favoring the backward-baseball-cap look while disguised as a man, establishes a vital give-and-take relationship with Marika Becz's Celia, her partner in deception and in pastoral banishment.
Shakespeare swiped the broad narrative outline of "As You Like It" from the Elizabethan prose work "Rosalynde" by Thomas Lodge, which is full of sentences along the lines of: "Scarce had Rosalynde ended her madrigal, before Torismond came in with his daughter Alinda and many of the peers of France, who were enamored of her beauty. . . ." From Lodge's pastoral, Shakespeare made an Arden for all time.
Co-directors Lance Davis and Ben Donenberg lean on the '60s folk sound for atmosphere, while tossing in more contemporary visual references. The wrestling scene, between Rosalind's love interest Orlando (Kent Faulcon) and Charles (Joe Rose), is pure WWF, with some lines delivered via hand-held microphone. Charles is treated to a Jesse Ventura get-up, which means he's just asking to be clobbered by Orlando.
Longenecker's Rosalind isn't a beguiler; nor, in the end, does she appear a changed woman by all she's learned--and taught--in the ways of the heart. (Her final costume, white go-go boots and Nancy Sinatra hair, makes the actress look alarmingly like a '60s version of Nicole Brown Simpson.) Yet she's a scrappy, sharp-witted mistress of romantic ceremonies. Within its limits it's a crisp, authoritative performance.
Along with Becz's vibrant Celia, the most effective work comes from Tom Ramirez, an eloquently spoken Jaques, Richard Biggs' highly charged Oliver, and a pretty funny Touchstone the fool/Audrey the wench pairing of co-director Davis and Amie Farrell.
I could do without the audience sing-alongs. But then, I can't think of a time when I couldn't.
* "As You Like It," Shakespeare Festival/LA. At Burton Chace Park, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey: Wednesday through Sunday, 8:30 p.m. Free with canned food donation, reservations required. (213) 489-4127.
At South Coast Botanic Gardens, 26300 Crenshaw Blvd., Palos Verdes Peninsula: July 22 through Aug. 1, 8:30 p.m. Ends Aug. 1. $15-$18. (310) 377-4316. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Marika Becz: Celia
Richard Biggs: Oliver
Eli Chartikoff: Banjo Player
Lance Davis: Touchstone
Ralph Drischell: Adam
Amie Farrell: Audrey
Kent Faulcon: Orlando
Seth D. Holder: Dennis/Ward
Kevin P. Kern: Sylvius
Elisa Llamido: Phoebe
Jane Longenecker: Rosalind
Jose Mercado: William/Lord
Tom Ramirez: Jaques
Rodney Rincon: Corin
Joe Rose: Charles
Clive Rosengren: Duke Senior
Scott Tuomey: Amiens
Rudolph Willrich: Duke Frederick/Martext
Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Lance Davis and Ben Donenberg. Set by Douglas Rogers. Costumes by David R. Zyla. Lighting by Trevor Norton. Choreographer: Kay Cole. Fight director: Randy Kovitz. Musical director: Ron Abel. Sound by Ja Young. Production stage manager: Vanessa Noon.