Steven Lone and Richard Baird (with apple) in "As You Like It." Photo courtesy of New Fortune Theatre Company
Sitting outside in a quaint amphitheater in the round with a hazy moon overhead and the faint sounds of crickets chirping in the air, I breathed in an unfettered and unadorned production of “As You Like It” and wondered if this was how Shakespeare meant it to be.
After a five-year hiatus, the New Fortune Theater Company founded by Richard Baird and Amanda Schaar has returned to live productions with a staging of The Bard’s much-loved pastoral comedy under the stars behind Westminster Presbyterian Church in Point Loma. It’s not a permanent venue for the company, but for the purposes of this particular play and a celebration of New Fortune’s return, it’s ideal.
Actors perform under strings of lights sans set or amplification, coming and going from wings that are a church parking lot or the gateway to adjoining Westminster Park. The play’s six songs, such as “Under the Greenwood Tree,” are performed live – just singer/actor (Jaden Guerrero) and stringed instrument. There are no bells and whistles in this Forest of Arden.
Dan Hodge directs this production of “As You Like It,” with Schaar starring as the heroine, Rosalind, and Baird in the role of the melancholy Jaques. The cast includes Steven Lone as Rosalind’s stalwart suitor Orlando, Brian McCann as Touchstone the fool, Rachel VanWormer as Rosalind’s exasperated cousin Celia, and Neil McDonald as both Duke Senior and Duke Frederick. All are in peak form.
So regularly is “As You Like It” produced – the Old Globe Theatre launched its Summer Shakespeare Festival with it in 2019 – that its story is as familiar as any of the Shakespearean comedies: Rosalind flees her tyrannical uncle, in the company of Celia, and finds herself and the man with whom she’s fallen in love, Orlando, there as well. A game of disguise and flirtation ensues.
Love at first sight is de rigeur in the forest, where shepherd Silvius (Geoffrey Ulysses Geissinger) pangs after shepherdess Phoebe (Taylor Henderson), Celia flips for Orlando’s older brother Oliver (Michael Rodriguez) and even Touchstone finds his true love, the goatherd Audrey (Leigh Akin).
The exception to all this toujours l’amour is the brooding Jaques, he who affirms with dismissal that “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” Clad fully in black and at times in shades, Baird conveys every bit of the character’s wryness and gloom. His moody observations are somehow more engrossing in the open air.
Lone brings considerable physicality to Orlando, grappling early in the going with both his brother and the formidable wrestler Charles (Xander Brown). Schaar interprets Rosalind as playful but forthright. VanWormer and McCann are her delightful traveling companions.
Danny Campbell, Durwood Murray and Walter Murray contribute much, too, to their supporting roles in what is a very strong cast.
This is a lengthy show – about two and a half hours – and the amphitheater “seating” is in concrete bleachers, so lawn chairs are welcome (and will prove comfortable). The way the weather’s been lately, sweaters and blankets probably won’t be needed, but that’s up to you.
“As You Like It” marks an inspired and diverting return for New Fortune Theater Company. See it some summer evening before it closes on Aug. 29.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.