PICTURED: Michael Faulkner, Martha Thatcher and Benjamin White as Touchstone, Celia and Orlando in As You Like It. Photo by Brian Stethem/CLU

by Emily Dodi

After a two-year absence, the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival is back, and with upgraded facilities and a brilliant cast and crew, it promises to be better than ever. It also happens to be the festival’s 25th anniversary, so there is much to celebrate this summer under the stars at California Lutheran University’s Kingsmen Park. 

This season’s offerings are As You Like It (July 1-3, 8-10 and 15-17) and Macbeth (July 23-24, 28-31 and August 5-7), as well as a special “pay what you will” family-friendly benefit performance by Puke and Snot, “the longest running two-man comedy act in the U.S. Renaissance Festival history” (July 22).

“Wild, romantic” As You Like It

Chloe Baldwin and Martha Thatcher as Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It. Photo by Brian Stethem/CLU

The Kingsmen Shakespeare Company, the professional theater company of CLU, chose Shakespeare’s popular comedy featuring a banished heroine as “the perfect way to joyously return from our own exile.” Set in the magical Forest of Arden, As You Like It is a “wild, romantic tale that plays with gender roles, politics and nature.” It also features Rosalind, “one of the bard’s most iconic female characters.” Chloe Baldwin, a former Kingsmen Festival apprentice and self-proclaimed “world’s nicest badass,” plays Rosalind. 

According to Stephanie Dykes in Picture This Post, “Baldwin tackles the role of Rosalind aggressively and the result is astounding. She plays both sides of the gender role coin, both with confidence and hilarity, and shows the illusion of these imagined societal roles.”

As You Like It is directed by the award-winning Warren C. Bowles, who is the festival’s first Black director. Bowles’s 40-year career as a director, actor and playwright, includes being a longtime member of the Mixed Blood Theatre Company in Minneapolis, which is noted for its use of theater to “disrupt injustices, advance equity, build community and inspire people to create ripple effects of social change.” 

Bowles represents what the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company says is its reexamination of how it addresses systemic racism, “not only the diversity of its casting but also who is in control of that casting.”   

“Our company committed itself over the last two years to do better. Warren helped us achieve diverse casting in both plays we are presenting this season,” said company founder and artistic director Michael J. Arndt.  

For Shakespeare’s beloved comedy As You Like It, Bowles is trusting the beauty of the language and the timeless relevance of the story to captivate audiences. “I hope audiences appreciate the simplicity with which we tell our story,” Bowles said. “We trust the play and Shakespeare’s skill as a storyteller.”

Fall from grace with Macbeth

Brett Elliott, the director of Macbeth, or “The Scottish Play” as it is called in theatrical circles due to an age-old superstition, concurs. “It is the draw of Shakespeare’s language. The poetry is unmatched.” Elliott adds that “the humanity of Shakespeare’s characters is so identifiable.” They are flawed, complex and deliciously inconsistent. That made casting the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth especially important to Elliott because he does not see them as one-dimensional villains. There is a meaningful fall from grace that happens, he explains, and if you ignore that, “you lose the tragedy.”

“We have the ideal cast. We have been thinking about this for three years,” Elliott says. Matt Orduña, who was last seen as Othello on the Kingsmen stage, plays Macbeth. “Matt combines gravitas, humanity and heart. He was always my first choice.” Elliott describes watching Orduña in rehearsals: “Oh my God, he’s so scary. And then he’s a teddy bear. He’s perfect for the role because he’s both.”

Michael Faulkner, Martha Thatcher and Chloe Baldwin as Touchstone, Celia and Rosalind in As You Like It. Photo by Brian Stethem/CLU

Caroline Kinsolving, a veteran Kingsmen actor who played Catherine to Elliott’s Petruchio in the company’s previous production of The Taming of the Shrew, plays Lady Macbeth. “I coaxed her back from New York to play the role,” Elliott exclaims. “Caroline is known for her strength and presence and tremendous humanity. She brings power and force to the role.”

A Kinsgmen veteran in his own right, Elliott has been an actor and director with the company “since the beginning” and is now the company’s assistant artistic director. He explains what coming back this year means to him and the rest of the company. “It’s like coming home. I got really emotional coming to rehearsal. How important and meaningful this is. It’s a part of who I am.”  

Elliott adds that this production of Macbeth is unlike anything the Kingsmen have done before. While it is still “a masterful tale of ambition,” filled with “sweeping battles, sardonic wit, occult mysteries and sublime poetry,” Elliott delights in sharing that this production of the Scottish Play takes place in what “feels like an ancient world where it makes sense that magic is real, and war is fought with broadswords.” 

Making it all possible, Elliott says, are “all the all-stars” of the company. In addition to the stellar cast, the crew includes scenic designer Erik Diaz, lighting designer Leigh Allen, costume designer Chris Allen and composer Christopher Hoag, who wrote original music for the production. Diaz, Hoag and Leigh Allen bring As You Like It to life as well, with Noelle Raffy-Porter lending her talents as costume designer for the comedy.

It is a joy to say that the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival is back. Back are the summer nights filled with the poetry and pageantry of Shakespeare. Back are the sounds of laughter and wonder—and the clinking of wine glasses. Back are the pre-show talks, albeit they will be adjusted to meet COVID safety regulations. All in all, as Elliott projects, it will be the best year yet, and not just because there will be “more tech and more lights.” For everyone who has ever felt that the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival is one of the best things about summer, it will feel like coming home. 

As You Like It, July 1-17; Macbeth, July 23-Aug. 7; Puke and Snot, July 22, all at Kingsmen Park, California Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. For full schedule, tickets and more information, visit www.kingsmenshakespeare.org.