Summer Shakes

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

As we approach summer's halfway point, we can say with some confidence that 2009 is proving to be a banner year for outdoor Shakespeare.

Here in the states, and perhaps the world, the definitive Shakespeare in the Park takes place each summer in Manhattan's Central Park. This year the New York Shakespeare Festival turned 55 years old, and the venerable company presented one of their best productions in years. Daniel Sullivan directed Twelfth Night staring Audra McDonald, Raul Esparza, Julie White and Anne Hathaway as Viola.

There's been a recent flood of movie stars trying their hand at theater this season, but Hathaway's debut was arguably the most auspicious. She showed a solid, if not masterful, command of Shakespeare's verse, and looked just right as a beautiful young girl disguised as a beautiful, dandyish young boy that everyone falls in love with.

The entire cast was first-rate, but the actor who stole the show was Hamish Linklater as Sir Andrew Augecheek. Linklater has been in a number of plays here in Southern California recently: Hamlet at South Coast Rep and the too brief run of Michael Sargent's The Projectionist at the Kirk Douglas earlier this year. He's a real talent—an in demand Hollywood actor who seems to truly relish working on stage.

Another major open-air Shakespeare venue is London's Globe Theatre. Built as a replica on the very location of Shakespeare's original Globe, this theater has history, but not a long tradition. It opened in 1997 and this marks only the troupe's 14th summer season. The Globe earned its reputation under Mark Rylance, doing original practices productions—studiously accurate period music and costumes plus all-male casting. Since Rylance left a few years back, the company has searched for an identity. I don't know that they've found it, but this year, their production of As You Like It has proved to be their best since the Rylance era.

The staging is mostly traditional, but what distinguishes it is the richness of the acting. The 16-person ensemble seems to have been playing their parts for years. Every role appears fully inhabited: Tim McMullen's droll Jaques, Dominic Rowan's truly comic Touchstone and most of all, Naomi Frederick's profound Rosalind. As You Like It can often seem silly and slight, but in Thea Sharrock's production it felt as sophisticated and witty as Shakespeare's finest comedy, the aforementioned Twelfth Night.

L.A.s oldest Summer Shakespeare organization is also staging As You Like It. For the next two weeks, Shakespeare Festival/LA is presenting Aquila Theatre's production directed by Kenn Sabberton. Now, after experiencing such a sparkling version of As You Like It, I was nervous about seeing it again so soon. But Aquila's version, while smaller in scope and looser in style, is a revelation in both its modestly and its genuine ability to please. The cast here is reduced to seven actors, most of whom play multiple roles. The scenery is nothing more than leaves that atmospherically fall from above occasionally and a few bales of hay. At first I was worried that this was just another stripped down cheapo stock summer show, but the actor's all proceeded to speak Shakespeare's language beautifully and clearly. Lucy Black, who plays Audrey, Phoebe and the male part of Jaques, is winning in all three roles and Leandra Ashton is a delightful mix of wisdom, charm and girlishness as Rosalind. This As You Like It is one of the best outdoor Shakespeare productions LA has seen in a while—up to 300 tickets are free each night so expect them to start disappearing soon.

Aquila's As You Like It runs through this Sunday downtown at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, then it then moves to the South Coast Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes where it runs though July 26. The Globe's As You Like It continues in London through October 10.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.