Oak Park Festival Theatre

Every summer the Oak Park Festival Theatre puts on an outdoor production of some Shakespeare script, and every summer I plan to go take a look at it, thinking, This will be perfect. To see a masterwork played out for me in the sweet air, on a stage framed by trees and surrounded by a neighborhood full of classic Prairie school mansions. This’ll be lovely.

Only it’s never all that lovely. The bugs come out; the humidity goes up; planes fly low, wrecking speeches and spoiling illusions. The productions themselves tend to be competent but disappointing–either wrongheaded or flat-footed or both.

And yet I haven’t stopped going. Or hoping. Especially not this year. I couldn’t have passed up this year, because this year Oak Park’s doing As You Like It.

Most folks seem to consider A Midsummer Night’s Dream the essential Shakespearean outdoor play. I prefer As You Like It. Both comedies offer up an enchanted forest, ruled by Love, where madness is a form of doting, deceit is playful, and evil simply can’t survive. But the enchantment in As You Like It is quieter and more natural, the humor drier and more rueful than in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Written a few years after that play and maybe a decade before The Tempest, As You Like It stands just about halfway between the watermelon sweetness of the one and the dusty grandeur of the other. It’s a fairy tale for grown-ups: the perfect show to watch from a beach chair in the grass.

So when I heard Oak Park would be doing it, I just naturally forgot all my old grievances and compunctions and told myself, This’ll be lovely.

Which is, oddly enough, what it turned out to be.

A solid third of the evening’s loveliness was just a matter of good luck: I happened to see As You Like It on a charmed night, when the bugs weren’t biting and the 747s stopped strafing the park by intermission time. But the other two thirds of loveliness was onstage, in Tom Mula’s gentle, intelligent production.

The secret of Mula’s success, as I see it, is his recognition that the fantasy in As You Like It isn’t of the same type as the fantasy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sure, the Forest of Arden exerts a magical influence on everyone who enters it, turning bad dukes good and bringing lost lovers together. But the power behind that magic has more to do with philosophy than with spells, with Rousseau and Voltaire than with Titania and Oberon. It’s a magic that exists in the natural order of things–carrying out its transformations not by creating illusions but by tearing them away. Midsummer’s wood sprites make lovers see what isn’t there; the spirit of Arden helps them see what is.

Mula’s insight is most apparent–and most useful–where Rosalind and Orlando are concerned. The central lovers of As You Like It, they first lock eyebeams at the court of the evil usurper, Duke Frederick, then meet again in Arden, where they’ve gone separately to escape murderous relatives. Their second meeting finds Rosalind in deep cover, posing as a young man and calling herself Ganymede after one of Jupiter’s many mythic boyfriends. She encounters Orlando wandering the forest, thoroughly lovesick, but won’t reveal herself to him. She befriends him as Ganymede, instead, coaching him on how to woo fair Rosalind.

Now the director of a Midsummer-style fantasy–or of a misunderstood As You Like It–would try to make us believe that Orlando never catches on to Rosalind’s masquerade. That he’s been stricken with a supernatural blindness, and consequently can’t see even a little bit of the obvious. Such a strategy would make sense for the director of a Midsummer-style fantasy, because a supernatural blindness is more than a possibility in that context: it’s practically the point.

But like I say, As You Like It isn’t about blindness. It’s about seeing. Or, more accurately, about insight. And so there comes a moment in Mula’s version when we’re made to understand that Orlando knows the truth about Ganymede. I’m not even sure how it happens–part of the loveliness of this production has to do with the delicacy of certain effects. Still, it happens. And from that moment on, we know that Orlando’s going along with the charade not because he’s too stupid or love-crazed or bewitched to figure it out, but simply because it’s fun and he wants to.

Which makes the whole show so much more interesting, especially for audience members of a certain age–mine, for instance–who’ve experienced enough of love to know that although it’s definitely wonderful, it rarely responds to potions. Once we know Orlando’s in on the game, his banter with Rosalind loses some of its adolescent frivolity and takes on a Tracy-Hepburn charge: these folks may be playing with each other, but they’re playing for keeps–very deliberately negotiating the terms of their prospective union. It’s a little like The Taming of the Shrew, only more equal and less cruel.

Mula’s production may be lovely, but it’s not perfectly lovely. David Carlyon resembles an amphetaminized Stan Laurel as Touchstone the fool, and Laurel Cronin settles too comfortably into a lot of things we’ve seen her do before as Touchstone’s simpleminded paramour, Audrey. Paul Amandes makes the rightful duke so aw-shucks unassuming that we’ve got to worry for the safety of the state if he ever gets his dukedom back. Arthur Pearson and Ric Kraus lack vividness as the two central villains, Oliver and Duke Frederick.

But Matt K. Miller’s scrappy, solid Orlando is a nice change from the lovesick boys of tradition; and Kathy Santen makes Rosalind’s masquerade much more than an occasion for putting on a mannish swagger: in her hands, it becomes a means for expressing Rosalind’s otherwise frustrated wit, strength, and personal power. Douglas Post’s music is simple, sweet, and clear. Very much in the Mula spirit. Very much as I, for one, like it.


at Cotton Chicago

“Guy opened up his head on light pole down on Montrose. Had to take his whole head off.” –one cop to another, corner of Sheffield and Belmont, late one recent summer night

You can’t out-weird reality in east Lakeview. Not at certain times of night, anyway. Put on an assertively weird weekend late-night show at Belmont and Wilton, and your main competition will be on the sidewalk outside.

Metraform’s Coed Prison Sluts is an assertively weird weekend late-night show at Belmont and Wilton. Set in the common room of a correctional facility, where psychopaths of both sexes hang out, fall in love, and undergo therapy at the hands of Dr. Bello–who turns out to be a little coed-ish himself–Sluts never manages to outdo the punks, pros, and panhandlers of Belmont Avenue. But it’s got better music, and you can generally tell where the jokes are.

Conscientiously, energetically dumb jokes. The coeds include a potty-mouthed classical actress, a white-trash satyr, an apple-cheeked teen named Skeeter, and a hamster-loving soldier of fortune. The plot involves a homicidal clown, and Fluffy the dog does tricks.

There’s a big production number with tap dancing, and lyrics that go, “Hey! We’re in prison! It’s not a walk in the park!” Also, a cheery little ditty that runs, “Shit. Motherfucker. Fuck you, you cunt or a dick. Blow job. (A-dum dum.) Suck my dick.”

Still, my favorite moments are the quiet ones, like when Henry, the tell-me-about-the-rabbits-George deviate, croons his balladic confession, “I did a thing. It broke a law.” And Alice, the ingenue with the bad self-image, answers, “I’ve been bad and I’m from hell.”

So, in its modest way, is Coed Prison Sluts.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.