"The times they are a-changin' " Bob Dylan sang in an era of political upheaval, and by adapting his melody to the song after the "All the world's a stage" speech in "As You Like It," the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company offers a decidedly contemporary take on an age-old comedy.
Social and political trends are often reflected in the shifting popularity of certain Shakespeare plays, particularly when it comes to the outdoor productions that tend to be the Bard's greatest box office draws. The Kingsmen revival on the Cal Lutheran University grounds is the summer's second high-profile Southland revival of "As You Like It," a lighthearted romp in which polarized politics and environmental awareness nevertheless figure prominently.
Like its sibling at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, this production stresses the theme of rebellion amid a dysfunctional nation that's lost touch with its human heart -- a sickness that can be cured only by fleeing sterile, neurotic city life for the renewal and harmony of nature. Both opt for historical resettings in periods of American unrest -- post Civil War Reconstruction and 1971, respectively.
Here, however, the resetting concept is more explicit, as director Kevin P. Kern wittily maps the play's spirit of rebellion to the music and pop sensibilities of the counterculture movement at its peak. In one particularly inspired pairing, guitar-strumming minstrels and a chorus of flower children use the melody of Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" for their song to Melancholy Jacques (Eric Zivot), whose incarnation as a Vietnam vet provides an unusually specific basis for the character's bitterness.
Additional appropriated tunes by Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, incidental music from Jefferson Airplane, the Beach Boys and the Who, and a culminating scene with the marriage goddess Hymen (Amanda Wallace) belting out the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" elevate the soundtrack to official flashback status.
Assured lead performances from Caroline Kinsolving as the banished Rosalind and Jane Elliott as her friend Celia and Kingsmen veteran Derek Medina's solid turn as the self-centered manipulator, Oliver, remind us there is also a Shakespeare play going on.
That's always the rub when playing fast and loose with the Bard -- it's all too easy to get fixated on the staging conceit and forget to honor the text. When the two work together in proper balance, the concept invests the language with new vitality and relevance. Case in point: Brett Elliott as the clown Touchstone, who delivers a stand-up lounge act (even tossing in a John Wayne impersonation) while staying within the boundaries set by the rhythms and cadences of the text.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of all readings. The most glaring offenders are Zivot's melodramatic Jacques and Paul Benz's scansion-slaughtering Orlando, but the problem is rampant among the supporting cast. Kern has given too much free rein for actors to emote at the expense of the meter, and the resulting indulgences stretch this paisley-patterned party a good half-hour past its, um, tripping point.
'As You Like It'
Where: Kingsmen Park at Cal Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, also July 11
Ends: July 13
Price: $15 general lawn admission; $60 to $75 for reserved lawn box seating
Contact: (805) 493-3455
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes