All the right pieces are in the right place with “As You Like It,” the season opener for the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s 59th season.
We have familiar faces — the somewhat de facto resident company. We have a few new faces, too.
We have Matt Wallace’s solid direction, leading the characters — a collection of lovers, nobles and servants — from the city where their troubles rule out to the forest of Arden, where they find their loves and an adventure or two.
We have the Frederick Olmsted-designed Central Park and the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater. The offstage accommodations are there, and Kentucky Shakespeare has added a special kids area so the whippersnappers can hang out and let their parents have the opportunity to talk about something other than PJ Masks while they grab a beer and cheesy fries or sushi or barbecue.
But “As You Like It” never managed to quite get off the ground for me, and it certainly didn’t hit the heights the Bard’s comedies have attained in recent years when shepherded to the stage by Wallace’s sure hands, performed by all those wonderful actors we have come to love.
I should mention now that my review should be taken with a grain of salt. This production is set with trappings and costumes inspired by Appalachia, with new songs and music played and performed live. Despite having reported that fact, both officially and frequently to friends who have asked, it wasn’t until the first banjo chord and the first fiddle lick burst into sound that I remembered I really don’t particularly care for Appalachian folk music, bluegrass or a pretty large portion of “Americana.”
But I don’t think it’s just my personal antipathy that caused this production to feel overlong.
Once the play starts, the folk music repeatedly kills the momentum of Shakespeare’s madcappery. Every time Gregory Maupin’s banjo playing “Touchstone,” Jon Becraft’s fiery Orlando or Hallie Dizdarevic’s smitten and cross-dressing Rosalind got the crowd warmed up and chuckling, the action and the laughing would pause for a snatch of song, sometimes for several minutes.
Shakespeare’s songs in general often strike me as something of a sticky wicket, as does the old tradition of adding in a dance or two for every comedy. It’s in the script and it’s in the tradition.
But with due respect to both the Bard and Aristotle’s “Poetics,” we don’t actually have to have singing and dancing in every play.
To be clear, the singing — provided mostly by Neill Robertson — is excellent. His tone is bright and warm, and he sells each song with the same skill he always brings to the stage.
He’s capably backed up by several members of the cast, many of whom play instruments. The original music composed by Aaron Bibelhauser is catchy with tight harmonies.
The choreography also is not at fault, particularly the dancing in the marriage scene, which capably blends Appalachian steps with a good use of the stage, and Barbara Cullen’s actor-friendly choreography.
But none of those elements adds to the play, no matter how well they are executed.
It’s worth returning to Becraft and Dizdarevic for a moment before looking at the rest of the cast. The wordplay between their Orlando and Rosalind sparkles. After several years without a particularly meaty role, Becraft infuses Orlando — especially in the scenes before he first meets Rosaline — with a palpable and antsy ire.
It’s a far cry from the sweetness we often see in a young lover and explains why Becraft is more often relegated to the role of villain. But instead of undermining his character, this energy makes Orlando more interesting when he falls in love and sets him apart from the cavalcade of young lovers who romp through each one of Shakespeare’s comedies.
Dizdarevic is having a ball as Rosalind, especially when she dresses as the boyish Ganymede in order to flirt with Orlando. She also serves us the principle joy of watching a de facto resident company — a faithful patron can easily call to mind her sweet and tragic turn as Desdemona from last year’s “Othello.” Seeing her flirty and fun is twice as good knowing she was all tragic last summer.
The second act picks up a bit and allows Silvius (Crystian Wiltshire) and Phebe (Angelica Santiago) to command some stage time as a second set of young lovers.
Wilshire is a regular with Kentucky Shakespeare and is frequently put in the role of young lover. His ebullience sells those characters, whether they are the tragic Romeo or a comic Claudio.
Here his young lover is less a leading man and more a goofy secondary character, and it’s fun to watch Wiltshire push his usual charm past credulity and basically parody his usual characters, giving us a cartoonish and playful country bumpkin.
Phebe runs from Silvius toward Ganymede, echoing once more the superior “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Santiago does get to perform one of the great comedic monologues Shakespeare wrote for a women’s character, wherein she pitilessly rips apart the idea that a mean look from a woman can wound or hurt a man. Santiago does it justice and in general holds up her end of scenes with Wiltshire and Dizdarevic.
“As You Like It” runs throughout the summer, with performances through July 20. Also part of the 59th season are “Henry IV, Part Two” starting June 13 and “The Tragedy of King Lear” starting June 27. The full schedule is online, and as usual, all performances are free.