State-line Shakespeare

Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival

“Sorry! There’s no beach access through the stage.” Steven Patterson and Michael Smith halt Michael Moerman in <i>As You Like It</i>.

“Sorry! There’s no beach access through the stage.” Steven Patterson and Michael Smith halt Michael Moerman in As You Like It.

Each of Northern California’s outdoor Shakespeare fests has its own personality. Shakespeare Santa Cruz features redwood trees and favors contemporary interpretations. California Shakespeare in Orinda is prone to foggy nights (my brother calls its venue the “freeze your Bruns Amphitheatre”) and still bears signs of its birth in nearby Berkeley.

The Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival is something else. Like the other festivals, Tahoe uses a solid core of professional actors—many from the Foothill Theatre Company. But Tahoe’s got sand in its shoes; it takes place in a gorgeous beachside amphitheater. You breathe mountain air, not coastal mist. And it’s in Nevada, where there are slot machines by the checkout line at the grocery store.

Critics say the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival relies too heavily on Shakespeare’s comedies. It’s a charge that’s hard to refute, because the festival is staging Much Ado About Nothing after only a three-year break, with the same actress in the lead. But Rebecca Dines is a smart, engaging performer, so while we’ll fault this festival for lack of diversity in programming, we’ll acknowledge that Dines handles her reprise as Beatrice with style and assurance. She appears opposite Dan Hiatt, a veteran of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and California Shakespeare Theater, who was a very late substitute as Benedick. (The program credits another actor.)

Hiatt really earns his keep. He also plays Dogberry in Much Ado, plus two roles in As You Like It. You can almost play “Where’s Waldo?” trying to spot him. Even though he stepped in at the last minute as Benedick, there’s nothing lacking in Hiatt’s dapper, charming performance. He and Dines strike plenty of sparks as they spar verbally onstage, swearing they’ll never marry. Yet when they fall in love, it’s believable.

Director Philip Charles Sneed sets the play in the Bay Area circa 1899, with American troops returning from war in the distant Philippines. Sneed deftly embellishes the opening with an understated reflection on our times: a scene in which uniformed troops solemnly carry the flag-draped casket of a fallen soldier. He then works in waltzes and ragtime, Chinese paper lanterns and turn-of-the-century garb.

As You Like It, the festival’s other offering, is comparatively traditional. The costumes, props and music lean toward Elizabethan styles. Dines, as director this time, gives the script an honest, orthodox reading with no modern spin.

The play opens amid urban nastiness, courtroom paranoia and hints of physical menace. But the scene soon shifts to the Forest of Arden (which might as well be the “Forest of Love”), where everything slows down and mellows out. It’s pastoral comedy, with witty, philosophical shepherds; multiple pairs of courting lovers; and a heroine (actress Carolyn Howarth as Rosalind) who passes herself off as a young guy.

Howarth handles Rosalind’s cross-dressing just fine, and she’s a master in terms of movement. The scenes in which she pretends to be the Ganymede, giving lessons in wooing to the handsome Orlando (her heart’s desire), are funny to watch. Where Howarth comes up a little off-the-mark is in the final scenes, where Rosalind re-emerges as herself just before she weds. Howarth handles the transition cleanly, but in some productions I’ve seen actresses give Rosalind a greater sense of accomplishment and radiant independence. Making another inevitable comparison, Rosalind and Orlando are also a less complicated couple than Beatrice and Benedick, probably because they’re younger and less battle-weary.

Keep your eye on J.G. Smith as Jaques. He’s dressed like a “man in black,” just in case anyone needs a visual reminder of his gloomy moods. (A Jaques quote: “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.”) Smith handles his big “All the world’s a stage” speech quite nicely. Dines underscores the seven ages of man with visual illustrations. She also puts Jaques into more scenes than Shakespeare did. Jaques often hovers about the fringes, observing.

Dines makes some trims, but admirably retains at least a portion of some speeches that are often cut – like the one by Hymen, god of marriage, who is not a household name nowadays. All told, As You Like It is a well-crafted effort, if not as infectious as its companion production.

If you make the trip to Lake Tahoe, know that Sand Harbor has an excellent swimming beach. Arrive in the afternoon with a picnic. Bring a sweater, as temperatures drop after sundown, and keep a poncho in the car, just in case you catch a passing afternoon mountain thundershower.