All the world’s a stage deep in the Whidbey woods

Take a journey into the unknown, deep into the woods of Whidbey and into Shakespeare’s imagination.

Kate Hodges and Bristol Bloom are inseparable cousins and best friends as Rosalind and Celia in “As You Like It

Kate Hodges and Bristol Bloom are inseparable cousins and best friends as Rosalind and Celia in “As You Like It

Take a journey into the unknown, deep into the woods of Whidbey and into Shakespeare’s imagination.

Island Shakespeare Fest, in support of Whidbey Children’s Theater, presents its debut production of William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” at the brand-new Storyhouse Theatre in the woods at Chinook in Clinton. It’s the perfect setting for the pastoral comedy, which Shakespeare sets in the “Forest of Arden.”

Directed by Rose Woods, with original music by Ian Marsanyi, the show opens at 4 p.m. Saturday, July 31 and continues to play at 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 8.

Woods was the director of recent productions of “Into the Woods,” and “Meet the Greens,” both at Whidbey Children’s Theater in Langley. She also has a long history of acting, choreographing and directing theater in Los Angeles and Marin County, Calif. as well as having worked on a number of Hollywood films as a writer and editor.

But since she moved to Whidbey Island, Woods has had these rumblings in the back of her mind about providing Shakespeare outside to audiences of all ages for free.

“We do so out of love for great theater,” Woods wrote in a statement about the festival, “and in believing such gatherings of audience and artists add immeasurably to the quality of life in the community.”

Indeed, the founder of the Whidbey Institute, Fred Hull, who with his wife owns the land upon which the stage was built, had heard about Woods’ vision of an outdoor Shakespeare festival. After seeing a performance of “Into the Woods,” Hull asked Woods if she would like him to help get a stage built on the grounds at Chinook. Woods’ eyes popped in response with an “Absolutely!”

“Theatre allows us to stand in the storm and discover what is essential — not simply our capacity to survive and transcend, but to laugh and cry collectively,” Woods wrote of her passion to bring theater to everybody.

Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” is a comedy full of its own passions. Woods chose it in part because it is a tradition among some of the best national Shakespeare festivals to open with “As You Like It,” and what a great tradition to uphold, she said.

“But also, it’s a wonderful pastoral comedy, and it seemed appropriate to do a play where the characters find redemption in the forest,” Woods added.

Redemption does indeed reveal itself in the play, but not until a somewhat complex plot unfolds.

Duke Senior has been usurped of his throne by his brother, Duke Frederick, and has fled to the Forest of Arden, where he lives like Robin Hood with a band of loyal followers. Duke Frederick allows Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, to remain at court because of her close friendship with his own daughter, Celia.

Orlando, the youngest son of Sir Rowland de Bois, participates in a wrestling match at court. Orlando and Rosalind instantly fall in love with one another, though Rosalind keeps this fact a secret from everyone but Celia. Orlando returns home from the wrestling match, only to have his faithful servant Adam warn him about his older brother Oliver’s plot against Orlando’s life. Orlando decides to leave for the safety of Arden. Without warning, Duke Frederick has a change of heart regarding Rosalind and banishes her from court. She, too, decides to flee to the Forest of Arden and leaves with Celia, who cannot bear to be without Rosalind, and Touchstone, the court jester. To guarantee the safety of their journey, Rosalind assumes the dress of a young man and takes the name Ganymede, while Celia dresses as a common shepherdess and calls herself Aliena.

From there, a thoroughly entertaining romp in the woods ensues where several characters find love, and the sourpuss character of Jaques recites one of the most memorable speeches in the bard’s canon.

Notable, too, is that “As You Like It” features the cross-dressed Rosalind (played by Kate Hodges), arguably one of the most interesting female characters ever written by Shakespeare.

There are lots of reasons to venture into the woods to see this play, but ultimately one of the main goals of this fledgling but merry band of innovators is to bring the classical texts alive in new and exciting ways, so that anyone who lays a blanket down on the grass in this natural amphitheater under the trees, can enjoy one of the greatest dramatists who ever put ink to paper.

“I see parallels all the time between the play and life on Whidbey, where people have moved to get away from things. There is, in the lives I see in this community and in the play, a constant theme of moving toward nature, toward light and laughter, and all those things,” Woods said.

“Plus, I just love this play,” she said.

All performances of “As You Like It” at Storyhouse Theatre are free and open to all ages. Audience members are asked to bring a blanket to sit on, and a picnic if desired, while enjoying the poetry and passion of Shakespeare’s play in a pastoral setting.

The Storyhouse Theatre at 6335 Old Pietila Road in Clinton is nestled between the Whidbey Island Waldorf School and the Whidbey Institute. Parking is available in the lot that’s a five-minute walk to the amphitheater. Limited disabled parking is also available. For information, call 221-8707 or 221-1710.

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