Andrew Borba believes Shakespeare, much like spinach, has developed a bad rap.
Chautauqua Theater Company is on a mission this summer to make Shakespeare’s work as accessible as possible so more people have the opportunity to understand what the Bard is really about.
Free Will: Shakespeare in the Park will bring As You Like It to outdoor venues across Chautauqua County, exposing the poet to audiences old and new. Every performance is free of charge, including the one at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 28, in Jamestown as part of the Allen Park Bandshell Performance Series.
The play’s accessibility extends to the language, Borba said. Those new to Shakespeare plays have no reason to fear losing the plot through his Elizabethan verse, as the meaning behind unfamiliar words can be picked up from the actors’ intentions and body language.
“First and foremost, I think that if you, as an audience member, are not understanding a Shakespeare play, that is our fault,” said Borba, CTC’s artistic director. “It’s English.”
The 90-minute production ditches the thick British accents that have become associated with Shakespeare’s plays, opting for American pronunciations instead.
Eight CTC conservatory actors play 14 roles, meaning some double and triple casting was required. Elijah Jones, who plays Oliver, Corin and William, said that the different physicality of each character aids with the storytelling and will help audience members tell them apart.
As for Shakespeare’s stereotypical doublets and hosen, Rosalind and company will instead be dressed like ’60s hippies, complete with fringed vests and floral prints. Borba’s choice to make the Forest of Arden resemble the Woodstock Festival was rooted in the play’s focus on love and freedom.
This choice extends to the show’s musical numbers. Borba said he hopes that older audiences will find familiarity in Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco” and other songs that anchor the play in the selected era.
Although this incarnation of As You Like It is set in a more modern time, the production keeps the original text intact. Borba said the conservatory actors bring freshness to monologues like the melancholic Jaques’ “All the world’s a stage” speech that have become iconic over the last 400 years.
“Even in a play where every word is spoken exactly as written, there’s always an element of improvisation,” Borba said. “You must be playing what’s happening right now in the imaginative world as if it’s happening right now for the first time.”
Between four seasons with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and 13 with CTC, Borba’s directing credits include everything from Macbeth and Twelfth Night to The Taming of the Shrew. He also played the titular role in Richard III at the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis.
Although he admits that some of Shakespeare’s scripts have glaring imperfections, Borba said his stories contain truth and beauty that stands the test of time.
“They’re extraordinary and profound, and they investigate the human spirit as well or better than any plays ever written” Borba said.
Jones said he loves how Shakespeare’s language plays with sound and that he is excited to see contemporary audiences connect with the 16th-century text.
“As You Like It specifically has to do with love, whether its self-love or love of someone else,” Jones said. “Whatever type of love it may be, the message of As You Like It is simply that you can have love as you like it.”