Just as fiddleheads and lilacs sprung early this year, so have the urban-pastoral pleasures of al fresco Shakespeare: Acorn Productions’ Naked Shakespeare Ensemble brings us into the balmy season with the two love-addled plays of the Westbrook Shakespeare Festival, Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It, staged alternately under the sun and the gazebo in Riverbank Park.
Expanding upon its mission to strip the Bard’s work down and meaningfully engage its language, the Ensemble has launched a new program for thespians aged 12 to 20, the Young Actors Shakespeare Conservatory, and the group’s culminating work is that play most delicious in the hands of actual teenagers, Romeo and Juliet. Karen Ball directs an ensemble production in which most of the eight actors play at least two characters, hastily throwing aside swords and donning aprons as they do.
ACTUAL TEENS Benedetto Robinson and Grania Power in Romeo and Juliet.
These actors demonstrate an admirable understanding of Shakespeare’s meaning and wordplay. They often seem truly to relish its wit and intricacy (Nora Daly gives her Friar a great world-weary sagacity as he counsels the hormone-ridden Romeo), and many move gamely between characters: From a wonderfully menacing Tybalt, Acy Jackson rises a few octaves to a comic, falsetto-voiced Nurse, and Samson Fowler distinguishes nicely between the neutrality of the Prince and the hipster buddy banter of Mercutio.
Ball’s direction moves them around all sides of the audience’s mass of lawn chairs and blankets — ambitious blocking, though different logistics (e.g., an audience area cordoned off in two parts, with an aisle down the middle for performers) might improve the actors’ audibility. Physically, there is lots of swagger here, and careful execution of fight choreographer Mark Bedell’s sword-and-dagger play.
As its star-crossed lovers, Benedetto Robinson and Grania Power reveal not just their intelligence, but a rare luminosity. Their grasp of the language is sure and nuanced, and their emotional instincts yield some extraordinarily lovely moments, especially in the balcony scene’s vertiginous progression of emotions. As they continue to hone their technique and their engagement with the language, my suggestion to them — and to all these young actors — is to continue exploring and drawing on ever-deeper wellsprings of feeling, for which the language must always be a vehicle.
Love is a lighter matter in the evening program, when Michael Howard directs the motley comic antics of As You Like It. With her mother, the supplanted Duchess, banished, Laura Graham’s Rosalind drips with ennui, sorrow, and nausea in the court of her aunt, the supplanting Duchess (Maggie Gish as both Duchesses). But then Ros swoons for the young Orlando (Keith Anctil), and so rises in octaves and onto tiptoes, nearly leaving the ground in her infatuation. Once she’s banished, along with her cousin Celia (Stephanie Ross, with big, brassy affections), the play’s signature cross-dressing and sex skirmishes begin.
Commenting upon it all, Joe Quinn’s philosopher-curmudgeon Jaques, in a boater and bow-tie, is a little perkier than is often the custom, while Seth Berner’s Touchstone is a raggedy, careening coil of wit and libido as he cavorts with the primordially wanton Audrey (Julia Reddy). Howard has Orlando catch on to “Ganymede’s” shenanigans a little earlier than is often the case, which adds a pleasurable extra layer of tension to their banter.