Inspire School players go all out for Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy
Let’s get this out of the way: I was pretty disappointed to see the hand-drawn “Sorry, Dude” sign at the top of the Bidwell Bowl Amphitheatre with the announcement that the Sunday matinee of As You Like It had been moved from outside to inside the Blue Room Theatre due to technical difficulties. It’s not often that one gets to see a pastoral play in a living pastoral setting—especially one as lush as that surrounding the creekside stage outside the Bidwells’ back door—and I was really looking forward to the opportunity.
Oh, well. The show must go on, and it did against a wonderfully colorful, psychedelic backdrop of flowers and eyeballs that scenic designer Dave Beasley and the Inspire School of Arts & Sciences students had created inside the Blue Room for their evening shows. And once things got rolling, my disappointment quickly faded.
Director Joyce Henderson’s adaptation drops the action into the groovy 1960s, transplanting Shakespeare’s comedy of love gone wild into a suitably experimental and equally wild new era. It’s the perfect setup for the daring female characters of Rosalind and her cousin Celia to step out of court and into their forest adventure.
The psychedelic backdrop was matched by a variety of the era’s styles (assembled by costume coordinator Lucy Greenfield)—from miniskirts and mini-dresses to bell bottoms and John Lennon glasses—as well as a live band performing snippets of Beatles tunes as perfect segues.
With the play’s pastoral action now taking place in Forest of Bidwell (shouldn’t it be Golden Gate Park?), one of the best moves was making the Foresters of Arden into a band of Bidwell Park hippies who spend their days tripping out to the musings of the banished Duke Senior/“The Dude” (Bryan Clements) and his attendant, Jaques (Matthew Stone). I won’t ruin any scenes for you, but I laughed really hard at one particularly well-timed “Wow.”
For a play that is less a story than a series of verbal sparring matches, convoluted scenarios, shifting roles, and a lot of quick/twisting dialogue, it takes a lot of practice and even more energy by the players to keep things moving. And it was pretty incredible how thoroughly the young cast rose to the challenge, especially given the compacted schedule of a play that went from auditions to opening night in just six weeks.
All of the leads were fantastic: Clements as the stony Dude; the long-limbed Nicholas Hoover as the goofing clown, Touchstone; Clarice Sobon in a joyful, tender turn as the faithful Celia; and the physically and mentally agile Leo Daverson, who played the love-struck Orlando with elastic and endearing head-over-heels energy, as well as a sneaky sense of comic timing.
And then there were these two: Aidan Sobon and Alexandra Hilsee, who provided two of the most entertaining performances I’ve seen from local actors in some time. Sobon’s giggling turn as the stony, mandolin-toting Amiens was awesome as he led his fellow hippies around the forest in hilarious song. And Hilsee was scary good as the fiery Rosalind, rising to the challenge of the plum role with a committed all-consuming performance—from intimate embraces with her beloved cousin Celia (with a matched authenticity from Sobon) to her witty and wild interplay with would-be lover Orlando while in disguise.
The common ground that is Shakespeare’s forest is where young lovers of all stripes are free jump onto the world’s stage and partake in whatever foolery they desire. And the young Inspire actors appear to have eagerly accepted that challenge, and they put on quite a show in the process.