The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company loves to take advantage of the natural setting provided for its summer shows at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park. "As You Like It" makes their job easy, because much of the play's action takes place in the Forest of Arden.
Massive old trees play their natural role quite convincingly on this hill high above Ellicott City. Of course, the weather also plays a role in such outdoor productions. There was a 35-minute rain delay during the reviewed performance, but several of the actors performed contemporary pop songs while the audience huddled under a tent until the downpour ended.
Although such an uninvited intermission can hinder the forward rush of an involving show, it was telling that this amusing production simply picked up where it left off.
This was partly because Shakespeare's comedy about feuding families, cross-dressing characters and tangled plot developments has a generous spirit that accomodates all sorts of events.
It also was partly due to the production itself, whose Victorian-era costumes assert that the action has been updated to circa 1890. Consequently, the whole show conveys an aura of actors dressing up for an evening lawn party.
And there is a lot of modern music woven into the staging — and not just into that unscheduled intermission. If anything, the musical interludes worked into this production directed by Patrick Kilpatrick don't know when to quit.
As with some of the company's other recent productions, the generally welcome inclusion of modern music tends to wear out its welcome through overuse. The Bard can be hip without the constant infusion of both original and classic pop songs.
"As You Like It" fortunately has a story that ensures you'll like it, and the extroverted Chesapeake Shakespeare cast zestfully throws itself into the plot complications. It helps that the story's principal points of conflict have a schematic clarity that's as readily consumed as a summer picnic.
Duke Senior (Gregory Burgess) has been living in exile in the Forest of Arden. He has a lovely daughter named Rosalind (Blythe Coons). The reason that the good-natured Duke Senior is residing in the woods is that the Dukedom has been taken over by his power-hungry brother, Duke Frederick (also played by Burgess, who does a nifty job of changing characters as he changes costumes). Duke Frederick also has a lovely daughter, Celia (Lizzi Albert), who is best buddies with her cousin Rosalind.
This aristocratic family isn't the only one that doesn't get along. The late Rowland de Boys has two, er, boys who would benefit from paternal estate-related financial counseling. These young adult sons are the stuffy and selfish Oliver (Matthew Ancarrow) and his much nicer younger brother, Orlando (Vince Eisenson).
Well, set them all loose in the woods and watch what happens. At the center of this high-spirited comedy is the instant romantic attraction between Rosalind and Orlando; and that amorous attraction is also at the heart of this production, because Coons and Eisenson make those sparks fly.
Indeed, this Orlando is so overwhelmed by his attraction to Rosalind that you keenly relate to his lament upon first meeting her: "What passion hangs these weights upon my tongue?"
Romantic reverberations also rumble through the rest of this amply plotted story, as in the pastoral courtship between a shepherd, Silvius (James Jager), and the shepherdess, Phebe (Teresa Spencer), with whom he is in love.
Add in a full roster of lords, ladies, servants, a goatherd, a court jester and a wrestler, and the Forest of Arden has enough inhabitants to warrant representation in Parliament.
This cheerfully busy production has this population in constant motion, making for a fast pace on the way to the inevitable happy ending.
"As You Like It" runs through July 20 at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, at 3691 Sarah's Lane in Ellicott City. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 6 p.m.; there is a Fourth of July performance at 5 p.m. Tickets are $29- $38, $15 for students 25 and under on Thursday and Friday, and free for children 18 and under when accompanied by a ticketed adult. Call 410-313-8661 or go to http://www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com.