Shakespeare Dallas' Summer of Classics and Ass-Kicking

Like fireworks and fire ants, Shakespeare in the park is part of the summer landscape. Shakespeare Dallas, now in its 40th season, is already under way, with two classics in production. For the first time, they've strayed from the words of the Bard to put another author's work on the stage at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre in Tenison Park: Edmond Rostand's 1897 romantic dramedy Cyrano de Bergerac, which alternates in repertory with William Shakespeare's As You Like It through July 23.

Both plays are well cast with scads of local actors who, like the audience, brave the bugs and hot breezes of Dallas' stifling summer evenings for the sake of culture. Of course, the audience doesn't have to do it in heavy costumes, knee-high boots and greasepaint (although you should totally try that). Outdoor Shakespeare is a casual affair. Wear what you want. Bring a picnic, a bottle of cheap plonk and a pillow.

Cyrano is so long you'll begin to worry that you should have brought breakfast too. At three hours and 15 minutes, it's a marathon of florid verse and clanking swords, which might have been put to good use slicing some of the fat out of the script. The playbill doesn't reveal which translation of Cyrano de Bergerac director Raphael Parry has used, but it seems to be the one with the most words.

Poor Cyrano, born a century too early for the rhinoplasty that might have changed his life. Instead, he ghostwrites love letters on behalf of a thickheaded buddy, Christian, instead of opening up to the woman they both love, Roxane. The play starts with Cyrano and Christian as young soldiers, including a great scene of Cyrano offering streams of insults about his own looks as a way of deflating the power of his tormentors. It continues through to Cyrano's death, which comes after a lengthy farewell speech performed with unusual vigor for a dying man, on a visit to the convent where Roxane has lived out her years after Christian is killed in battle. (For a happier ending, see Steve Martin's lighter, shorter movie adaptation, Roxanne.)

The fair Roxane, played by the lovely Lydia Mackay, finally realizes that her boon companion Cyrano was really the author of all those billet doux. She falls in love with the right man at last, but it's too late. She had to have been blinded by Christian's looks (he's played by the good-looking Austin Tindle), or else she would have realized that he was too shallow to write such poetry. That's as plain as the thingamabob on Cyrano's face.

Actor Chris Hury is a handsome, dashing Cyrano, even behind the putty appurtenance. (How does it keep from melting off in this oppressive heat and humidity?) He excels at some mighty fine swordplay in the fight scenes (choreographed by Lloyd Caldwell), and he looks every inch the romantic swain in the puffy shirt, burgundy britches and vest designed by costumer Claudia Stephens. The evening would be less taxing with more of Hury's Cyrano striding the stage and less of the unnecessary bakers, nuns and other supernumeraries who talk a blue streak but don't advance the plot. During those scenes, feel free to get up and stretch your legs, or just lie back and listen to the chorus of cicadas writing their own love notes off in the woods nearby. The intermission finally arrives at 10 p.m.; that's a long time to hug the ground in hot wind that feels like a blast furnace. And there's another hour or so of Cyrano to go after that.

Only 15 minutes shorter in run time, As You Like It is so bright and lively, it seems only half the length of Cyrano de Bergerac. Directed by René Moreno with an emphasis on broad gestures and big comedy, it's a romp of a pastoral romance. The usual Shakespearean tropes are employed: evil dukes, misunderstood heroes, a motley fool and a smart girl masquerading as male rather than risk marriage to the wrong man. It ends with four weddings and a conga line. "It's A Midsummer Night's Dream without fairies," said my friend, who made the night even sweeter by toting in a bottle of good bubbly in his cooler.

As You Like It offers one of Shakespeare's best roles for a woman, and this production's Rosalind, Joanna Schellenberg, in her 14th year with Shakespeare Dallas, brings it plenty of sauce and sass. She's strong and beautiful as Rosalind; she's feisty in male drag as "Ganymede." All of the actors are miked in these shows (Cyrano was plagued with bad sound, perhaps due to high winds on the night reviewed), but Schellenberg's voice sounds especially rich and throaty in her Ganymede scenes. She's a pleasure to listen to. So is Jessica D. Turner, who plays Rosalind's cousin Celia, who tags along when they run away from court.

Moreno, currently Dallas' best director of antique plays, has set this production in 1936 in Franco's Spain, with hints of fascist oppression among the military characters. The period switch neither hurts nor helps As You Like It, which is more love story than political drama anyway. It does afford some lighter costumes, though. In silky dresses, also designed by Stephens, the ladies move with more freedom than do their heavy-skirted counterparts in Cyrano.

The visuals are further enhanced by the casting of Beau Trujillo as Rosalind's frustrated, poetry-penning suitor, Orlando. The play opens with a wrestling match between him and the hulking Charles (Mark C. Guerra) that will set the love story of Orlando and Rosalind in motion. The wrestling, choreographed with floor-banging WWE moves by Sara Romersberger, is made even more authentic by the appearance of the shirtless Trujillo, sporting six-pack abs on a glistening torso—the first real beefcake, pardon the expression, to show up in a Shakespeare Dallas show maybe ever. Good actor, too, that Trujillo, even after he puts his shirt back on.

Also spicing things up is Delilah Buitrón, the Oak Cliff dancer known as "La Musa Flamenca." Cast in the small role of the rebel Carmela, Buitrón, wearing waves of red ruffled skirt, performs a fiery flamenco at the end of the show. Five original songs, using Shakespeare's poetry against Spanish-style guitar, were composed for this production by Newton Pittman.

As the clown, Touchstone, Anthony L. Ramirez almost dances away with As You Like It, waltzing off-script with Marx Brothers jokes and asides to the audience. He's great.

T.A. Taylor, as Jaques, the play's "melancholy gentleman," delivers the work's most famous speech with melancholy charm: "All the world's a stage/ And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts...."

Once a year, that might be on an outdoor stage in front of several hundred onlookers who are happily tippled under the stars on a little wine and lots of poetry.

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