Shakespeare always kicks off Theatreworks' season. After last year's successful double production of Hamlet and Antonio's Revenge, the company is again producing concurrent plays. However, this year's season opens on a lighthearted note, with a contemporary version of the popular comedy As You Like It and an obscure stage adaptation of the darker erotic poem Venus and Adonis.
"We decided it's time for comedy again," says artistic director and Theatreworks co-founder Murray Ross. "As You Like It is a lovely main-stage Shakespeare play, and Venus and Adonis is its kissing cousin it adds an extra spice to the season."
Ross has only directed As You Like It once, and that was 18 years ago. Venus and Adonis has been set under this master's hand once before as well 16 years ago at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Revisiting these love-saturated stories after such a long absence affords Ross the opportunity to work with a fresh and critical eye.
"Both the mainstream [play] and the chamber piece are an excursion into the world of love and the outdoors," he says. "Even though both are set in the forest, they speak about love in such very different ways.
"One moves from dark to light, and the other from light to darkness. The cues are taken from nature, the freedom to explore and even the animals: timid rabbits, lusty stallions and even savage boars."
As You Like It quickly shifts from stuffy courts to wild woodlands, where the play's characters are hiding from treacherous plots and familial injustices. Away from courtly intrigue, they immerse themselves in the pastoral world, acting out their own ideals in the guise of their alter egos.
Well-known as one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed comedies, As You Like It features high humor and clever wordplay surrounding a string of chance encounters and entangled love affairs. Lighthearted banter and philosophical witticisms play out in a world disguised; women dress as men, nobles as shepherds and courtiers as outlaws.
Main protagonist Rosalind, played by veteran actress Jane Noseworthy, is one of Shakespeare's greatest and most fully realized female characters. Disguised as a boy for the majority of the play, Rosalind chats and jokes and lectures constantly, accounting for nearly a quarter of the production's dialogue. Shakespeare keeps love at the fore as he casually comments on human foibles and social injustices.
In Venus and Adonis, an adaptation of Shakespeare's epic poem based on Ovid's Metamorphoses, frolicking in the forest takes on a deceptively seductive twist. Since the 1,194-line poem is mostly written in iambic pentameter, the language takes on a lilting and lyrical flow.
"Shakespeare was showing off his skill when he wrote this poem," says Tracy Hostmeyer, the veteran actress playing Venus, the goddess of love. "Since it's all written in verse, it's challenging and exciting to perform."
When the goddess of love finds herself infatuated with the beauty of young Adonis, she sets out to seduce him with alluring images and passionate promises. Adonis spurns her advances, but Venus persists, dragging him off his horse and into her arms.
"Fondling," she saith, "since I have hemm'd thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale:
Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie."
Although on the surface, the two pieces seem inherently different a steamy, erotic poem and a lighthearted jaunt in the woods Ross says the theme of love binds them together.
"Rosalind is this fabulous girl who spends most of her time dressed up as a guy, whereas Venus is all woman she is the goddess of love. There is no question about her gender," says Murray. "Rosalind is all about reality and relationships, and Venus is all about sex. It makes a dynamic contrast."
As You Like It
Aug. 14-16, 21, 27, 29, 30 and Sept. 3-6, 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 23 and Sept. 6, 2 p.m.; Aug. 17, 24 and Sept. 7, 4 p.m.
Venus and Adonis
Aug. 20, 22, 23, 28, 7:30 p.m.; Aug. 30, 2 p.m.; Aug. 31, 4 p.m.
Tickets: $15-$50; visit theatreworkscs.org or call 262-3232 for more.
(Also: Special performance of Venus and Adonis at ForestEdge Gardens, 12285 Lindsey Lane, Black Forest, Aug. 26, 7:30 p.m., $75)