Free Shakespeare Returns this Summer with As You Like It

“In terms of the economy, everyone is feeling the pinch right now,” Steven Maler says in a telephone interview. Maler is the founding Artistic Director of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, and the award-winning director of the company’s annual Free Shakespeare on the Common production. Maler’s succinct comment on the current economy underscores what he sees as the value of the extended three-week run this summer of Free Shakespeare, presented by the Citi Performing Arts Center.

The longer schedule is a departure from the decision last year to cut performances down to one week, drawing controversy in the Boston media. Now, through the addition of state funding, the production enjoys a longer run as well as expansion beyond Boston. Maler explains: “We’re thrilled with how things have turned out this year. State funding for an event like this is essential, in my opinion. This is not just a play or theatrical event; it is really a civic event and we are grateful to state leadership for recognizing this as such.”

An annual tradition for eleven years, this summer’s Free Shakespeare production is the romantic comedy As You Like It, at the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common. Performances will run from Friday, July 18th through Sunday, August 3rd with Sunday shows beginning at 7 pm, and Tuesday-Saturday performances at 8 pm. The company will then travel to perform for three evenings over the weekend of August 8th, 9th, and 10th at 7:30 pm at Forest Park in Springfield, Massachusetts. All performances are free and open to the public, an aspect of the production Maler emphasizes when describing the summer tradition as a civic event.

When undertaking the challenge of making Shakespeare current and relatable, Maler embraces Shakespeare’s rendering universal the joy and suffering of human experience. And although Maler contemporizes the play’s setting, “What’s so astonishing about Shakespeare is that four hundred years later, we are still discovering him. The plays stay alive based on where we are in the world and the experiences that we each have individually. At their core, people haven’t changed much in four hundred years.”

In As You Like It, a duke is banished by his brother to the forest on the outskirts of the court society in an attempt to usurp power. The frame sets up a duality of societies of the corrupt court and the forest exiles. The play explores questions of power and the abuse of power, as well as role-playing and experimentation of individual identity. The play’s themes are embodied in the two central characters, the lovers Rosalind and Orlando.

Rosalind, considered a notoriously coveted and difficult part, has been played by actors from Katharine Hepburn to Gwyneth Paltrow. Marin Ireland, an award-winning stage and screen actor, will bring Rosalind to life for this incarnation of the play. The cast also includes award-winning Broadway and film actor Fred Weller as Orlando, as well as other notable actors, many of whom are returning to Free Shakespeare.

To hear Steven Maler tell it, this production is a true collaboration: “What’s so exciting about the process of bringing a play to fruition is that the journey with everyone involved becomes a discovery process, as the play reveals itself.” Beyond performance, the company aims to reach out to the local community on Saturday, August 2nd with the third annual Celebrate Shakespeare Day. The free event will be held at the Parkman Bandstand and includes lectures on Shakespeare’s work, workshops, performances, and backstage tours.