The stage of Katie Kirk ’17 and Susannah Hyde’s ’17 production of “As You Like It” is empty except for two tall trees. The trees — they look like birches — are barren of leaves, and rise like pillars out of the floor of the Crescent theater. It took me a moment, but I soon realized that they were made of papier-mached pages. The forest of Arden, where most of Shakespeare’s comedy takes place, is indeed a forest made of words: royal proclamations, chivalric challenges, lovers’ vows, make-believe characters, jokes, songs and even a bit of bad verse. And, as the two trees remind us, it’s also a world of doubling and redoubling.
Unless you’ve recently taken “Shakespeare: Comedies and Romances,” it’s probably been a while since you’ve spent time with “As You Like It.” But this charming play is well worth revisiting. Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, the plot is simple and even trivial: Duke Frederick (Carlos Guanche ‘20) banishes his brother Duke Senior (also played by Guanche), who sets up his own Robin Hood-style dukedom in the forest. But Frederick’s daughter, Celia (Eleanor Slota ‘17), persuades her father to allow Duke Senior’s daughter, Rosalind (Isabella Giovannini ’18), to stay and keep her company. When the pair of friends attends a wrestling match, Rosalind meets Orlando (Zeb Mehring ‘19), and the two fall in love. It turns out that Orlando’s father was an enemy of Frederick, so, once he defeats the wrestler (William Galligan ‘20), he is sent into exile — and, because he is in a particularly foul mood, so is Rosalind. Celia follows, with Touchstone the fool (Emily Harburg ‘18) to keep company. In order to protect themselves from the proverbial robbers of the forest, Rosalind dresses up as a man, Ganymede, and Celia rechristens herself Aliena. After this hurried beginning, a languorous sojourn in the forest begins.
As in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the forest is a distinctly different place where strange things happen. The shepherd Silvius (also played by Galligan) woos the shepherdess Phebe (Delilah Napier ‘19) who in turn woos Ganymede (i.e., Rosalind) who in turn woos Orlando. Orlando, in the meanwhile, woos Ganymede, who pretends she is Rosalind, after being challenged by her (him?) to prove his love. Eventually, in the rapid resolution of Act Five, Aliena (i.e., Celia) is paired with Oliver, Orlando’s brother, and in a triumphant wedding scene, everyone gets married and lives happily ever after — except for Celia. As she stands alone on stage in the play’s final tableau, we realize that perhaps the young women’s “loves are dearer than the natural bond of sisters” after all.
This production is producer Hyde’s senior project in English. She came to Kirk with the idea of doing a production which would shift the emphasis from the Rosalind-Orlando plot to the relationship between Rosalind and Celia, and on the whole their vision succeeds. Giovannini and Slota are fully co-stars of this production, though in different ways. Giovannini’s Rosalind exhibits a youthful charm, but more than anything she’s smart. As she puts on drag, she orchestrates not only Orlando’s wooing of her, but the marriages of the rustics and Celia and Oliver. She asserts a stage-managing authority over the production and grows into the fictions she weaves. Slota’s Celia is quieter and more sarcastic; she is Rosalind’s foil and, with knowing looks and ironic inflections, is responsible for most of the show’s laughs. She feels older. Celia is Rosalind’s comfort, her sidekick and oftentimes her audience. In a play of rivals — dukes, brothers, lovers — who want what the other has, her relationship with Rosalind is safe. But, at least in this production, maybe it, too, is an expression of desire. The omnipresence of desire in the form of love and envy is one of the play’s central preoccupations, as the title suggests.
Samuel Johnson wrote that Shakespeare “hasten[s] to the end of work,” and this production hastens indeed by cutting all of the songs but one, as well as several interstitial scenes and even a entire character (the admittedly peripheral vicar, Sir Oliver Martext). The result is that there is less embellishment of the “golden world” of the pastoral. Duke Senior, rather than the moralized and moralizing hermit, is played by Guanche as an all around nice dude of the Lebowski variety, who treats his forced exile more like a vacation. He “finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything” the same way your friend picks out a shooting star from the hot tub.
Among his band of outlaws is the somewhat less merry Jacques, brought to life by Alec Mukamal ‘18. William Hazlitt called Jacques the “only purely contemplative character in Shakespeare,” and, though that’s a strong claim, Mukamal plays Jacques as a melancholic philosopher, who has to overcome his inhibitions with drink in order to make the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech. His performance was funny in all the right places (and in some I didn’t even know were funny) but, to Mukamal’s credit, ultimately sad. By contrast, Harburg’s Touchstone is wry and dexterous, a master of language who calls its true meaning into question as she runs in verbal circles around other characters.
In a production that aims to push traditional gender norms, it was interesting that Touchstone was referred to as “she.” It’s a small point, but a telling one. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have a woman play a man? The play seems to invite it. More generally, the performances seemed to lean into gender, rather than against it. Though Giovannini can transform herself into Ganymede on a dime (sometimes within the span of one word), Rosalind and Celia are firmly and traditionally feminine. And Mehring’s Orlando reads as a good, all-American boy: even when he’s courting Ganymede, there’s not a whiff of homoeroticism about him.
But this is a critique of the concept, not the show, which achieves an impressive level of performance overall. Shakespeare is difficult, and the cast had a real command of the text. The production is no-frills: fairly traditional costumes (although Galligan sports leather pants in all three of his outfits), spare sets and few props. The minimalism of the production frees up the viewer’s attention to concentrate on the words and the skillful physical acting of this cast, which doesn’t need any help. All in all, in the words of Celia, “I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.”