It's hard to think of a show better suited to a Sunday afternoon romp at the outdoor Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum than "As You Like It." Set against the amphitheater's verdant Topanga Canyon hillside backdrop, this thoroughly enjoyable revival of William Shakespeare's comedy charms with its themes of pastoral healing for troubled souls.
Resetting the play in the post-Civil War American South, the sprightly staging by artistic director Ellen Geer and Theatricum veteran Melora Marshall offers unflagging energy, emotional authenticity and, above all, clarity. The accessibility of the action is particularly impressive given Shakespeare's sprawling plot, daunting array of characters and frequent reliance on narration for key offstage events.
A capable cast skillfully differentiates the various personalities, social stations and conflicted loyalties in a fanciful dukedom torn by political strife. The dysfunctional family conflict at the outset between the dispossessed hero, Orlando (sympathetic Mike Peebler), and his scheming brother (Matthew McCallum) is a microcosm of their sick urban society. The realm's usurping tyrant (Tim Halligan) has driven his brother (Thad Geer) into the forest. The escape into a healthier natural alternative is superbly realized in the Theatricum environs, as the performers make extensive use of the surrounding trails and clearings.
As the rightful Duke's subsequently exiled daughter, Rosalind, one of Shakespeare's most richly developed and resourceful female characters, Willow Geer proves an unstoppable force. When her beloved Orlando follows her into the forest, she literally swoops down on him from the trees in her male disguise.
The ensuing tangle of mistaken identities and amorous pursuits unfolds with delightful hilarity. Thanks to clear performances all around, there's no mistaking the social strata represented by Shakespeare's supporting pairs of lovers. Some nontraditional casting surprises include Ernestine Phillips, bringing a new twist to Melancholy Jaques with her sonorous contralto inflections, and co-director Marshall as Orlando's aged servant, who delights in her guitar-strumming appearances with scene-stealing dog in tow.
Resetting Shakespeare's plays is practically de rigueur these days, whether or not it amplifies the text in any meaningful way. Though the post-Civil War context implicitly brings the theme of brother against brother close to home, the production doesn't push the conceit much past a serviceable pretext for period costume design, an occasional drawl and a musical style for the play's several songs. The specific circumstances that divided the country back then -- especially slavery -- do not figure in the colorblind (and in some cases gender-blind) casting, which remains defiantly outside conventional politics. We're in Topanga, after all.
'As You Like It'
Where: Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga
When: 3 p.m. Sundays (dark Sept. 14)
Ends: Sept. 28
Price: $20 to $28
Contact: (310) 455-3723
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes