Jonathan Epstein is a Shakespeare specialist. He's acted in and directed Shakespeare all over the country, and he teaches Shakespeare to his acting students at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training.
When it comes to Shakespearean comedies, he has a clear favorite: "As You Like It."
"It's the greatest of his comedies," Epstein said. "For me, it's not even close. It's not that it's the funniest, it's that it has the most potential for tragedy that turns out well."
Epstein is directing his favorite Shakespeare comedy starting this weekend, when the Asolo Conservatory stages "As You Like It" for a three-week run at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts in Sarasota.
It's Epstein's second show as a director for the conservatory, after last year's staging of Joe Orton's "Loot."
He's excited about this new show, he said, not just because he likes the script so much but because of the set and because of the second-year conservatory acting students who make up the cast.
A key setting in "As You Like It" is the Forest of Arden. For the conservatory production, the forest is depicted figuratively by ribbons hanging from above. The characters climb and swing from the ribbons.
"This play doesn't make sense unless you have magical forest," he said. "A representational forest could never have the same glory as going outside and looking at actual trees," he said.
The students actors took advantage of their locale by hiring circus performers to teach them how to do work on the ribbons. Epstein was glad they did that for the sake of safety, but he didn't want them to learn so much that they'd come across as acrobats.
The dense story -- which has been pared down to about 90 minutes by Epstein -- includes themes about love and injustice, and features reversal of gender roles.
And it includes one of Shakespeare's most familiar quotations: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."
Epstein said the second-year student actors -- whom local audiences first saw in David Mamet's "The Water Engine" in November -- have a strong grasp of Shakespeare.
"I'm the acting teacher for the second-year students and I'm teaching them only Shakespeare,' he said. "So if they don't know how to do it, it's all my fault."
Details: Jan. 2-18, Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday- Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. 2 p.m. matinee Saturday, Jan. 3. Tickets: $28-$29. Information: 941-351-8000, asolorep.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.