By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Jul 13, 2013 at 11:03 AM

A spectacular summer night in Milwaukee, with beautiful weather, a gorgeous sky and not a bug to be seen was made even more spectacular Friday night at the opening of "As You Like It," one of William Shakespeare’s most famous comedies.

Under the smooth and guiding hand of director Tom Reed, Optimist Theatre is staging its annual free performance at the striking Kadish Park Amphitheater in Riverwest. The theater, on a hill, provides a glorious view of the Milwaukee skyline.

But it wasn’t the skyline that drew attention Friday night. It was a magnificent staging of a play designed to get laughs. And it succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.

Like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, love is the theme. But the currency of this play is the foibles of love and the strategies needed to make love come true.

The cast of this play understands the role that honesty plays in humor. If it’s honest, the audience will laugh with you. If it’s phony, the audience may laugh at you. Reed made sure that this cast tells it to the audience straight, and in that he’s found laugh upon laugh. He is a fantastic director who doesn’t direct enough in this city.

This is one honest play.

Todd Denning, who plays Touchstone the court jester, gives a performance that should be mandatory viewing for any actor hoping to act Shakespeare. Denning’s role lends itself to physical comedy and he delivers with roaring good humor. But there is also a winding wordplay with Touchstone, and few actors are able to blend both the physical and the linguistic humor as well as Denning does. He is breathtaking in his approach.

Acting as if she has Denning’s blood in her veins, Sara Zientek, who plays Celia, shows her continued growth as an actor to be reckoned with in Milwaukee. She just came off a stint with Utah Shakespeare and will be an intern at the Milwaukee Rep next season. Like Denning, she never lets her body get in the way of the joyful language of her part. She just gets better and better every time I see her.

Patrick Lawlor, a Milwaukee veteran who we don’t see enough, creates a Jacques who has all the sleaze and weariness that anyone could want. His delivery of one of the the most famous of all Shakespearean monologues is magnificent. "All the world’s a stage," and then Lawlor delivers the seven stages of a man’s life with a precision and passion that makes you wonder how he got so smart.

As the lovers, Kristin Hammargren, who plays Rosalind, and Clayton Hamburg, who plays Orlando, are alternately whimsical and intent on the journey of discovery of their own passions and loves. She has a certainty beneath her search and he has the kind of joyous maturation process that makes him so attractive to her.

Optimist has a goal of providing free Shakespeare each summer to a diverse audience. Several hundred people lounged on the hillside at the park Friday night. The company struggles each year for funding and BMO Harris Bank helped keep the performance this year free for all.

But the company can still only stage the play for two weekends. That is a shame.

This kind of experience, the new setting, the new audiences and the incredible work of the entire company deserve to be in the spotlight for a longer run that two weekends. There can’t be too many performances of this play.

Shakespeare called the play, which some see as a question, "As You Like It?"

And the answer for this production is, very much. I like it very much, indeed.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.