Merely Players will open its season on September 23 with a colorful 1960s-inspired take on Shakespeare’s frothiest comedy – ‘As You Like It’.
“Shakespeare was told to write a fun play, and he came up with the title ‘As You Like It,'” director Mona Wood-Patterson said. “It is one of the lightest and most elegant of all his comedies. And this is our first Shakespeare in Merely Underground.
After years of performing Shakespeare and other works in various unusual spaces such as a warehouse, barn, ranch or, more creatively, a motel dry pool, players now have a permanent home.
Founded in 1994, the semi-professional company moved into its sprawling space at 789 Tech Center Drive during the pandemic. Last season, players lined up a full list of plays, including “Matilda the Musical.” The Underground is a massive space, partially underground, with a vast stage space that can be adapted to many configurations. It also has prop and costume storage, a carpentry workshop, offices, break rooms and changing rooms.
“We’re using aisle staging for this production,” Wood-Patterson said. Audiences will be seated on bleachers straddling the play area. “We have 22 stages, which is a challenge, a 17-member cast, live music and dancing.”
Dancing 60s style, that is. Time travel with Shakespeare is the way of the world these days, and Wood-Patterson is always at the forefront of creativity in the practice of theatrical performance.
“The ’60s were a time of re-examination and breakthrough,” she said. “We are now in a similar phase as we challenge norms and strive to come together. Drawing a visual parallel with the past allows us to emphasize the themes of the room and make them accessible in surprising and charming ways.
With costumes by JoAnn Nevils, the entire production will glow with 60s groove. Musician-actor Conor Sheehan (Oliver/Amiens) has adapted Shakespeare’s words to his own interpretation of 60s music. And the Equity actor-choreographer Zachary Chiero (Touchstone) designed 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 moves from a tightly ordered and hierarchical court to a free and natural forest where romantic comedy flourishes.
“Our playful production is filled with flirtatious disguises, witty encounters, inventive puppets and some of Shakespeare’s most famous phrases,” Wood-Patterson said. “And we have an unusually large cast of 17 people. We are welcoming a few elders back, which is our practice. Many have turned to professional careers. You will also see beginners. We have organized 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: Simply Underground, 789 Tech Center Drive.
MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.merelyplayers.us or call 749-8585. Masking optional.
Equity actors Adam Fontana and Erika Vetter return to anchor the comedy as Orlando and Rosalind. Adding to the professional mix are Sheehan and Chiero along with experienced local actors Stephen Bowers (Duke Senior), Mohriah James (Ada) and Charlie Grice (Corin/Charles). Newcomer Paul E. Laakso brings his professional experience to his first role in Durango as Jaques. Other performers round out the large cast supported by a 16-member team led 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 created whimsical creatures including a sheep named Beatrice, a deer, and a lion that all serve as plot points.
“We love adding puppets — especially to comedies,” Wood-Patterson said. “Puppets stimulate the imagination. And it’s a play about an escape from responsibility for an orderly, predictable world.
Merly Players has a tradition of presenting story summaries for Shakespearean plays. Pitch talks take place 45 minutes before curtain time and are well worth an early arrival. This fall, Wood-Patterson and Bowers will share the job. The plot, the characters and the flow of the story will be explained. For those new to or familiar with Shakespeare, pre-show lectures enhance the theater experience and are free for ticket holders.
Masking is optional this year. If you would prefer to sit with other masked members of the public, let player staff members know in advance. Contact [email protected] or call 748-8585 to make the request.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.