Port Townsend High School drama director Jennifer Nielsen is setting Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It” in the wild West, replete with a toothpick-encrusted cactus, this weekend and next in the school auditorium. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/for Peninsula Daily News)

Port Townsend High School drama director Jennifer Nielsen is setting Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It” in the wild West, replete with a toothpick-encrusted cactus, this weekend and next in the school auditorium. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/for Peninsula Daily News)

All the world’s a stage: Port Townsend drama director caps 15-year run with ‘As You Like It’

PORT TOWNSEND — With teenagers and drama, all things are possible.

And with Jennifer Nielsen at the wheel, you’ve got Shakespeare’s romantic comedy “As You Like It” set in the Wild West of the 1850s; for added fun, stir in pop hits from the 1950s: “Come Go with Me,” “Hey Good Lookin,’” “Dream Lover” and then some.

Nielsen picked out these songs for this “As You Like It,” the spring musical at Port Townsend High School. She’s the drama director who, for the past 15 years, has shepherded teenagers into the wide world of theater.

After this show, Nielsen will step down from the director’s chair. She’s savoring these last performances.

“They have really risen to a challenge,” Nielsen said of her Shakespearean actors, who range from ninth-graders to seniors.

“For many of the kids, [the stage] gives them a place to feel accepted, no matter their strengths and weaknesses. I see them grow in confidence and skill in expressing themselves.

“Theater helps them find out who they are.”

“As You Like It” takes the stage at Port Townsend High, 1500 Van Ness, tonight, Saturday and Sunday and finally next Friday and Saturday, May 18 and 19. Curtain is at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is the same as it’s been for a decade and a half: $10 general, $5 for seniors and students, $3 for children under 12.

“It’s not about making money; it’s about getting people to see the production,” Nielsen said.

For her part, she is ready to explore new possibilities.

“I feel really good about it. I don’t have any regrets,” Nielsen said of her decision to retire from directing.

Shows, from “Oliver!” and “West Side Story” to the edgier “Urinetown,” “Wanda’s World” and “Bat Boy,” devour her afternoons and nights, from August into November for the fall play and from February to May for the spring musical.

Over the years Nielsen has taken flocks of students to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., and to Seattle for plays such as “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s tale of witch trials, at the ACT Theatre.

“Wherever they go in the world,” she said, her kids see how “they can be an audience member, a participant,” or both.

The bard himself backs her up in “As You Like It.”

“All the world’s a stage,” he writes, and we are the players.

“Jennifer gives students roles that allow them to shine,” said arranger-composer-pianist Linda Dowdell, who’s worked with Nielsen for eight years.

“She doesn’t create divas; hard workers instead,” who know their value as part of the team.

Setting “As You Like It” in the American West lightens things up, Dowdell said, while “adding love songs from the following century is Jennifer’s crazy idea. And it has proved delightful.”

From her seat at the piano, Dowdell marvels at how the students deliver Shakespeare’s poetry, full as it is with vocabulary from centuries past. They tell this love story with a flourish.

Artists from the community join the students: Tomoki Sage is the fight choreographer, Angela Gyurko guides the dance sequences, Jim Guthrie is set designer, Steve Arbuckle is lighting designer and Angela Agnew does hair and makeup.

The cast includes Nielsen’s daughter Cece, 18, as Rosalind, Galia Roman as Celia, Bodie Labrie as Orlando and Finn O’Donnell as Oliver.

Students working on- and offstage as actors, crew and musicians are Katherine Eldridge, Odin Smith, Nylah Garling, Pierre Balou, Sorina Johnson, Cyan Adams, Violet Moell, Brooke Hageman and Zinnia Hansen.

Though she’s departing the stage, Nielsen, 59, will continue teaching English at Port Townsend High. She said she’s confident a new drama director will be found, and the program will carry on “in some form or other.”

There is a great need, Nielsen added, for theater “in the community and in the student body.”

So when’s the last day of school?

Sometime in mid-June, she estimated. In fact it’s June 15. But this educator doesn’t focus on endings.

“I take it,” she said, “day by day.”

________

Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.

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