Every community needs a theater group like the Garfield Shakespeare Company: a small group of volunteer actors offering free shows in the park -- for no benefit other than the pleasure of soaking themselves in Shakespeare.
Community theater gets a bad rap, and I admit to being reluctant about last night's performance of "As You Like It." Yes, the acting was spotty, but there's real pleasure in watching an actor who's clearly destined for better things (i.e., paying work). Sure, the scenery consisted of plastic trees and painted bed-sheet backdrops, but Shakespeare's company worked with even less.
The company made good decisions (especially in terms of what to cut) and made good use of its limited resources, and overall the actors presented a solid performance. Anyway, when writing about free performances by volunteer actors, I'm inclined to overlook a few flaws.
I can say, without hesitation, that last night's play was infinitely better than the performance we saw last fall at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. -- which probably had a budget 1,000 times higher than last night's show. For that show, the director wanted to emphasize the theme of re-invention, and to compare the characters' self-fashioning to the growth and development of America as a nation.
Thus, every single scene was set in a different American time and place, gradually moving from the Pilgrims in Act I to the Wild West in Act III to the Roaring '20s in Act V. Every single scene had new scenery and new costumes, and the actors even spoke in different regional accents every time they appeared on stage. Even for a Shakespeare buff like me, it was impossible to follow. We spent the first half of every scene trying to figure out who the heck was on stage.
Having flown to Washington, D.C., specifically to see that play, you can imagine how irritated we were. For me, Shakespeare companies need to present the play without distracting from the original text. That doesn't mean every Bard production needs to be set in Elizabethan England; I've seen a good "Othello" set in post-colonial Africa and a hilarious "Comedy of Errors" styled as a 1950s sci-fi B-movie. As long as it makes sense -- and as long as it doesn't distract from the text -- those productions can open up new possibilities for interpretation. But, first and foremost, you have to respect the text.
From that perspective, last night's performance of "As You Like It," humble as it was, was far better than its high-budget, high-profile counterpart (and I have a new theater crush, to boot).