Diane Venora is a particularly energetic Jaques in "As You Like It." (Ed Krieger )
One sure way to stage “As You Like It” to make way sure you like it is to send in the clowns — an approach director Kenn Sabberton takes rather seriously in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles limited-run production at the scenic Japanese Garden on the VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Center Campus.
This resetting of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy in present-day L.A. shows traces of Sabberton’s (and some of his cast members’) affiliation with New York-based Aquila Theatre Company, especially in its accessible and at times irreverent style.
The play’s principal comic touchstone is, of course, Touchstone — the court jester who speaks truth to power (and anyone else who’ll listen) — superbly played by John Lavelle, who applies satirical dialogue and physical slapstick (and a postmodern dash of hand sanitizer) to deflate the pretensions around him. Hilarity also erupts in unexpected places, notably the masterful timing that Lindsay Rae Taylor brings to second-banana heroine Celia, and the versatility shown by Tony Abatemarco in multiple roles.
Sabberton’s loopiest casting choice pays off handsomely in Diane Venora’s gender-bent turn as the cynical busybody Jaques, an antimatter complement to Touchstone’s exuberance. Looking like a refugee from a Tim Burton movie, Jaques is relentless in trying to convert others to his pessimistic outlook. His toxic overtures are refuted, as they should be, by the engaging chemistry between romantic leads Peter Cambor and Tessa Thompson as Orlando and Rosalind.
Where most performances here lean toward lighter, more playful shadings, it falls to Michael Dorn ("Star Trek: The Next Generation") and his usurping Duke Frederick, fierce and forbidding as a Klingon warrior, to shoulder the play’s more sobering themes of out-of-balance lives in need of healing.
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“As You Like It,” Japanese Garden at the VA West L.A. Healthcare Campus, entrance at 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Ends July 29. $25-$50. (800) 838-3006 or www.shakespearecenter.org. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.