Merely Players will open its season Sept. 23, with a colorful, 1960s-inspired rendition of Shakespeare’s frothiest of comedies – “As You Like It.”
“Shakespeare was told to write a funny play, and he came up with the title ‘As You Like It,’” said Director Mona Wood-Patterson. “It’s one of the most lighthearted and elegant of all his comedies. And, it is our first Shakespeare in Merely Underground.”
After years of performing Shakespeare and other works in various unusual found spaces such as a warehouse, a barn, a ranch or, most creatively, a dry motel pool, the Players now have a permanent home.
Founded in 1994, the semiprofessional company moved into its sprawling space at 789 Tech Center Drive during the pandemic. Last season, the Players scheduled a full roster of plays, including “Matilda the Musical.” The Underground is a massive, partially below-ground space that has a huge stage area that can be adapted to any number of configurations. It also has prop and costume storage, a carpentry shop, office space, rest and dressing rooms.
“We’re using alley staging for this production,” Wood-Patterson said. The audience will sit on risers astride the playing area. “We have 22 scenes, which is a challenge, a 17-member cast, live music and dancing.”
Dancing ’60s-style, that is. Time traveling with Shakespeare is the way of the world these days, and Wood-Patterson is always on the creative cusp of theatrical performance practice.
“The ’60s was a time of re-examination and breakthrough,” she said. “We are in a similar phase now as we question norms and strive to come together. Drawing a visual parallel to the past allows us to underscore the themes of the play and make them accessible in a surprising and charming way.”
With costumes by JoAnn Nevils, the whole production will glimmer with a ’60s groove. Musician-actor Conor Sheehan (Oliver/Amiens) has set Shakespeare’s lyrics to his own interpretation of ’60s-style music. And Equity Actor-choreographer Zachary Chiero (Touchstone) has crafted dance sequences to underscore the look and tone of Wood-Patterson’s updated concept.
The story begins with two generations of brothers who are at odds with each other. It quickly shifts from a tightly ordered, hierarchical court to a free-and-natural forest where romantic comedy flourishes.
“Our playful production is filled with flirtatious disguises, witty encounters, inventive puppetry and some of Shakespeare’s most famous phrases,” Wood-Patterson said. “And we have an unusually large cast of 17. We’re welcoming back some alumni, which is our practice. Many have gone on to professional careers. You’ll also see some newbies. We held open auditions.”
WHAT: “As You Like It,” a comedy by William Shakespeare, presented by Merely Players, directed by Mona Wood-Patterson.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sept. 23, 24, 29, 30 and Oct. 1. 2 p.m. Sept. 25 and Oct. 2.
WHERE: Merely Underground, 789 Tech Center Drive.
MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.merelyplayers.org or call 749-8585. Masking optional.
Equity Actors Adam Fontana and Erika Vetter are returning to anchor the comedy as Orlando and Rosalind. Sheehan and Chiero add to the professional mix plus experienced local actors Stephen Bowers (Duke Senior), Mohriah James (Ada) and Charlie Grice (Corin/Charles). Newcomer Paul E. Laakso, brings professional experience to his first role in Durango as Jaques. Other performers fill out the large cast supported by a 16-member crew headed up by Wood-Patterson and Technical Director and Merely co-founder Charles Ford.
The Forest of Arden will also be inhabited by various animals in the form of puppets. Ford and Chiero have created whimsical creatures including a sheep name Beatrice, a deer and a lion that all serve plot points.
“We love adding puppets – especially to comedies,” Wood-Patterson said. “Puppets heighten imagination. And this is a play about an escape from responsibility from an ordered, predictable world.
Merely Players has a tradition of presenting story summaries for Shakespearean plays. Plotchats are held 45 minutes before curtain time and well worth an early arrival. This fall, Wood-Patterson and Bowers will share the task. The plot, characters and how the story unfolds will be explained. For people new to or familiar with Shakespeare, the preshow talks enhance the theater experience and are free to ticket holders.
Masking is optional this year. If you prefer to sit with other masked audience members, let the Players’ staff members know ahead of time. Contact email@example.com or call 749-8585 to make the request.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.