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7/7/2024        AS YOU LIKE IT                              Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse


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(Sloth Alert:  This production is a revival of the Tavern’s 2023 staging and this column is an edited version of my appreciation of that experience.)


Any hot summer afternoon is always a good time to revisit the shady idyll of Shakespeare’s Arden Forest, especially if it’s hiding within the over-AC’d environs of the Shakespeare Tavern.  Accordingly, today was perfect to catch up with the revival of As You Like It, as staged last spring.  If anyone cares (or is keeping count), this is my seventh AYLI since 2009, five of them Tavern productions), with the highest expectations of joy, delight, and renaissance  Yes, this is one of my favorites in the canon.


Apropos of nothing (or is it?), theatre has (and should be) a “safe place” for the gender-fluid spectrum, most bios specifying pronouns and casting happening with little regard to traditional gender roles.  This is especially true with the  Shakespeare canon, female roles being originally played by young boys in costumes that would get them arrested these days in some states.  This trend was exemplified by the 2020 National Theatre stream of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Titania and Oberon traded roles, and in which Puck was able to enchant a few same-sex couples, both ideas working beautifully and enriching the experience.  Don’t get me started on LadyShakes’  all-female Merchant of Venice, one of the best productions of any year.

Which brings us back to As You Like It and the Tavern’s choice (this time) to show gender and love as the continuum it should be.  Here, the exiled Duke is a Lady as are all her attendant Ladies.  The usurping Duke (played by the same female-identifying actor) is more ambiguous, as is the quintessential grouch, Jacques. Neither is referred to by any specific pronoun, neither exhibiting any of the gender roles this particular society seems loathe to insist upon.  And the result is a revelation of sylvan freedom and self-realization.


To say I was giddy with excitement watching this show would be an understatement.  I have seen it so often, and yet was here surprised and delighted at all the choices made, at all the subtleties (and unsubtleties) in the performances bringing it to life.  If I could boil this production down to a sound byte, it would be “Love is Love is Love.”  Nothing else matters.


Let me fall back on my habit of plagiarizing  earlier reviews (who knows which one?) to give some plot and background and long-standing preconceptions.  In essence, I hereby self-plagiarize an already self-plagiarizing piece, which no doubt self-plagiarized an even earlier production.  I’m nothing if not consistently slothful.


Welcome to the court of Duke Frederick, a nasty piece of work who obtained their Dukedom by overthrowing and banishing their older sister/brother.  We meet Rosalind, daughter of the "senior" Duke and her cousin, Frederick's daughter Celia.  We meet Orlando, youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys, who had been loyal to the banished Duke.  Orlando's older brother, Oliver, apparently uses Duke Frederick as a model for sibling affection, and Orlando decides to get outta town while he still can.


But first, there is a wrestling match with a hulking hunk of mindlessness loyal to Frederick, a battle staged with an over-the-top gusto that dwarfs all this venue's many over-the-top battle scenes.  Orlando soundly wins, antagonizing the Duke, but catching the eye of the fair Rosalind.  Rosalind is forthwith banished from the court.  Celia decides to join her, and the two disguise themselves as a boy ("Ganymede") and his sister, taking the jester Touchstone along for … well, for reasons.


Here's where the castle walls come tumbling down (well, not as literally as in 2014’s Georgia Shakespeare production – does everyone else miss them as much as do I?) and we are in the Forest of Arden, where banished Dukes have become one with nature, where courtiers frolic with shepherds, where love and lust battle in an elegant ballet of courtliness and passion, where lighting designer Greg Hanthorn Jr. fills the stage with green-goboed splendor.


This is one of Shakespeare's most "mature" comedies -- equal parts slapstick, wordplay, and dark potential. It has more depth than the earlier successes of Midsummer or Two Gentlemen but it also does not have the overabundance of drama found in later plays like Winter's Tale or Pericles.  I take that back – with the Tavern’s choice to play the Gender Cuisinart, this production is given a depth not seen in more “traditional” productions.


Why this complex web of relationships and politics and philosophical ruminations on love and courting works so well is simple -- the cast.  Gracie Wallace is again a lightning-bolt miracle as Rosalind AND as Ganymede -- lithe and lovely in court, she is filled to the brim with a joie de vivre that belies her circumstances, shyly subversive when she "stands up" to her uncle (aunt?), loudly loving in her scenes with Celia.  When she gets to the woods, she is totally convincing as a young and callow boy, strutting along as if bursting with emergent testosterone, embracing each new adventure with an "I'm Loving This!" exuberance.  And, when alone with Celia in the woods, she lets loose with enough bawdy humor you’d think it was the guy’s locker room.


Kenneth Wigley is a manly man of an Orlando, lithe and trim and attractive, who starts out underplaying his lines, keeping us on the edge of our seats to understand what he’s saying.  It is a sly choice that ultimately works – he is quietly virtuous and can threaten without shouting.  (I used to joke that my mother had the singular ability to yell at me without raising her voice above a whisper.  Mr. Wigley shows that ability may not be so singular.)  He is also good at the ambivalent homo-erotic subtexts in his scenes with Ganymede.  I also really liked Adam King’s wise and wickedly witty Touchstone, and Mary Ruth Ralston’s  melancholically gender-ambiguous Jacques.  Kati Grace Kirby is especially impressive as both Dukes, one decidedly female, the other …. not-so-obvious.  I REALLY loved Vinnie Mascola's WWE-ready Charles the Wrestler, making each entrance with a growl that should inspire "Boos" from the audience, carrying a don't-bother-me-I'm-reading disdain for all his opponents.  That he played the same role in the Tavern’s 2015 production is a testament to his willingness to shout a fervent “F.U.” to Time  and its penchant for aging actors prematurely.   The Tavern's usual repertory fills out the cast with its usual chameleonesque adaptability -- there is not a weak link in this ensemble!


The staging by Laura Cole is still exciting and fresh.  Gender roles are balanced beautifully, pronoun substitution and antecedence seem invisible but accurate, and the transitions glide faster than a Cupid's Arrow into the Hearts of Lust-at-First-Sight adolescents.  The array of couples come and go in a series of nicely balanced pas de deux that never distract from the central story.  And the whole ballet goes down with more pleasure than a warm Apple Crisp chased by a cold gin-and-tonic.


But, when all is said and done, this production soars on the wings of Gracie Wallace.  Not to take away from the marvelous memories of Rosalinds past, but she is a revelation (particularly in that final monologue), and I can't wait to see what she has in store for us in future productions.  (Yes, I wrote that last year.  Not to be cranky, but I’m still waiting.)


Maybe my increasing familiarity with these stories and characters has made me enjoy this production more than those of years' past, maybe the outstanding work of the two leads sharpened the focus of this particular mounting, maybe all the numerous dichotomies of the script (court/forest, love/lust, loyalty/betrayal, courtier/peasant, man/woman womanman/manwoman, womanwoman/manman) have become so familiar they've become a pleasant afterthought, maybe the energy of the ensemble made the Shakespeare-long running time zip by faster than an episode of … whatever my binge-of-choice is this week.

Not to be too obvious, but that's just as I like it!

  --  Brad Rudy  (   #SylvanIdyllsRule  #stpAYLI)

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