Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” was first produced in Louisville’s Central Park in July 1895 by a national touring company. The group performed the comedy right on the grass, long before the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival stage was built.
In the century that’s passed since that first performance, the Kentucky Shakespeare stage has hosted the play again and again — most recently by the company in 2011 (and in a particularly delightful 2014 production by the now-defunct Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble, featuring current Kentucky Shakespeare cast members Gregory Maupin, Abigail Maupin and Kyle Ware).
But Wednesday night’s preview of the company’s 2019 production of “As You Like It” serves as a tremendous reminder of just how much Kentucky Shakespeare has developed in recent years.
Set in 19th century Kentucky — complete with a tobacco barn, lush period costuming by Donna Lawrence-Downs, and bluegrass stylings — the comedy follows Rosalind (Hallie Dizdarevic), a young maiden who flees the persecution of her usurping uncle (Dathan Hooper). She is accompanied by her cousin Celia (Amber Avant) and the court fool, Touchstone (Gregory Maupin).
To conceal their identities, they assume disguises.
Rosalind dresses as a young man named Ganymede, and Celia as a poor woman. They eventually buy a piece of land in the Forest of Arden where they come into contact with a slew of memorable characters, including the melancholy Jaques (Abigail Maupin) and the shepherd Silvius (Crystian Wiltshire), who is helplessly in love with the maiden Phebe (Angelica Santiago) — who in turn falls helplessly in love with “Ganymede.”
While there, Rosalind also meets up with her potential suitor, Orlando (Jon Becraft), who is fleeing the wrath of his older brother (Jon Patrick O’Brien). But since she is in disguise, he doesn’t recognize her.
With spring fever in the air, and the added layer of hidden identities, fiddle-scored hilarity ensues; and that’s exactly what makes this production of “As You Like It”: the music and the cast’s stellar comedic timing.
Local bluegrass musician Aaron Bibelhauser — who hosts “Sunday Bluegrass” on our sister station WFPK — scored the nearly 400-year-old lyrics found in “As You Like It.”
The end-result sounds like a collection of Appalachian folk classics carried by a multi-talented ensemble of musicians and the voices of Neill Robertson and both Gregory Maupin and Abigail Maupin (which shouldn’t come as a surprise; together, they perform as the ukulele duo Rannygazoo outside of their Kentucky Shakespeare work).
Kentucky Shakespeare’s productions have been consistently great since Matt Wallace became producing artistic director in 2013; in the case, though, the music transformed this production into something memorable.
Additionally, this production of “As You Like It” really highlighted the company’s chemistry and knack for comedy.
Abigail Maupin as Jacques (a character typically played by a melancholy man) was tremendous as the unmitigated pessimist, serving as a nice foil for all lovelorn youth sighing in the forest. On the other end of the spectrum, Crystian Wiltshire brought an over-the-top boyish enthusiasm to the role of Sylvius. It’s sweet, funny and you can’t help but root for him to get the girl.
“As You Like It” is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, and you see why when watching Kentucky Shakespeare’s production. From interpreting centuries-old jokes for new audiences, to creating unique music and choreography, the company didn’t waste a beat.