Lovers of Shakespeare’s plays know that there’s a big difference between productions put on by well-intentioned people, and those put on by trained experts. Ambition is one thing, aptitude another.
The promise of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company, a new group in Germantown founded by professional Shakespearean actor Dan McCleary, is the stuff that local theatergoers’ dreams are made of.
McCleary’s long-term vision is an annual outdoor Shakespeare production — a lively, engaging event that will bring people together under the stars to indulge in the greatest literature written in English. He’ll bus in union actors and crew, put on a show worthy of serious financial backing and, most importantly, win over the city’s board of aldermen, who are now warily taking the concept for a test drive.
It’s a big promise. But after seeing the company’s debut production of “As You Like It,” set in a wooded area off Germantown Road, the possibilities seem both real and exciting.
That’s not to say the inaugural show comes off without a hitch. For one, audience members can decide for themselves if the actors’ old-school way of projecting their voices is any substitute for newfangled microphones, especially when freight trains honk through Germantown every 30 minutes. Love of environmental theater aside, we still have to hear the words, and in this production, seat selection is the key.
The show opens inside the cavernous St. George’s Episcopal Church where the first 40 minutes are nearly incomprehensible due to the room’s acoustics. A seat in the third pew might help. I took up the rear.
But sitting in the back had one major benefit. When the plot of “As You Like It” shifts after the main characters are banished to the Forest of Ardenne, the audience follows the outcasts to a 10-acre plot of land next door. A large semi-circle of chairs surrounds a bare-ground playing area framed by trees, like a rustic ceremonial ring. First out of the church, I got a second-row seat in the woods and had no further problem hearing the show. McCleary’s pro cast indeed has the chops for Shakespearean verbiage.
The woods are dreamily lighted with gaudy splashes of colors, as if we’d stumbled through the looking glass. In the play, Ardenne is a near fantasy world that reforms and unifies men with its Sherwood Forest-like sense of freedom and bucolic charms. The chilly fall wind rustles through the trees, the crickets sing, and the woods come alive with activity.
McCleary makes clever use of both the foreground and backgroud of his rolling landscape. As actors perform in the playing area, we can see in the distance a roaming shepherd, a band of merry men, a humorous chase scene between the “country copulatives,” or the lovelorn Orlando posting love sonnets to his Rosalind onto the trees.
While there have been more sophisticated productions of “As You Like It,” particularly in the way the Rosalind and Orlando love crisis develops, McCleary’s first effort at Shakespeare in the park has the communal spirit of a camp meeting in the October night. It’s a unique experience that we hope will become a regular one in years to come.
"As you Like It" continues through Oct. 19. Shows are 7 p.m. Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at St. George's Episcopal Church, 2425 S. Germantown Road. Tickets are $34. Call 759-0604.