Among the perks of writing as a volunteer for a online magazine that “isn’t about the cash” is the opportunity to hype one’s daughter and her friends without a hint of ethical confusion. In this case, Corinne Townsend, whom I will sadly lose soon to college, plays Rosalind, the lead female role in Harrison School of the Arts theater production of “As You Like It,” one of the Bard’s great comedies. I’m her dad, so it goes without saying that I consider her performance brilliant–but I’ll say it anyway. However, the excellence doesn’t stop with her.
I have not simply enjoyed a performance of Shakespeare this much in a long, long time. All the young people involved, from the highest profile role to smaller parts have command of the Elizabethan language. And they use it to tell the mildly dirty jokes the great poet intended. They get laughs with their faces and their bearings and timing, building on the literature and dramatic structure that Shakespeare built, but not chaining themselves to it. They remind us that Shakespeare wrote his work for performance, and for cheap entertainment of the masses, not professors. “As You Like It” is a goofily beautiful play, and the kids never lose sight of its ambition to be fun.
In addition to the talent and months of work supplied by the cast and crew, much of the credit for the success of “As You Like It” belongs to Ilene Fins, the director and dean of theatre at Harrison. In her vision, the zany story of angry dukes and exiled offspring partying in the woods occurs in 1960 California and Las Vegas, roughly around the time of the Rat Pack. The Arden Forest becomes a casino, where the cast out go to hang out. And for a bonus, Harrison’s exquisite jazz quartet and a handful of singers regularly punctuate the action with music. And it’s amazing how well the concept fits the play, which is full of references to (blackjack) “tables” and “music” and “fortune.” At one point, a character refers to the “horned beasts” of Arden Forest, at which the band members all raise their glasses with a Fonzie-like “heeeeyyyy”. Get it, horned beasts? Heh.
Anyway, the play is full of little extra-textual and anachronistic touches like that. It has an uproarious boxing scene. The preacher who emerges late in the action will make you giggle with costume alone. And, of course, there’s lots and lots of cross dressing. That’s sort of a staple of Shakespeare, particularly the comedies.
[Late insert: In an unforgivable oversight, I neglected to mention Bill Kimble, who leads the Theatre Tech Department an has responsibility for the sets and production design, which are fantastic. What I say about Ms. Fins below applies to Mr. Kimble as well.]
Finally, because we live in a time when a bunch of spoiled, petty adults in business and government are waging a kind of war on the people who do the work of educating kids and enriching their emotional and creative lives, I feel a need to just to plug Ilene Fins again. She’s one of the public employees some of you hate, and your ignorance of the virtually uncompensated hours and dedication she gave to the kids in this play and to the play itself speaks poorly of you. She helped a bunch of motivated young people make Shakespeare their own and communicate him in a way that kept my 8-year-old son cackling and entertained throughout. That’s what a little tiny bit of your tax money bought. What are you doing that’s better? And she’s not the only one. Harrison’s not the only school with talented kids and staff in this county, who are living with verve and purpose, and creating meaningful work that will linger far longer than some pointless checklist test that a politician can wave around as he tries to union-bust. We should all pay better attention.
But in the meantime, go see “As You Like It” this weekend. Shows are at 7:30 on Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Black Box Theatre. You can buy tickets here. Harrison is located at 750 Lake Hollingsworth Road on the southwest corner of the campus it shares with Lakeland High School.