Saturday, June 10, 2017

"As You Like It" at Cal Shakes

Cal Shakes photo by Kevin Berne
I believe I might have mentioned in a recent post that I'm a sucker for weddings. Well, that makes As You Like It pretty much the ultimate trap for me, since it ends with a full set of four weddings. I had wanted to see this Cal Shakes production when I heard that Desdemona Chiang was directing it, as I really appreciate her insight and creativity. What I hadn't realized until I counted things up tonight: this was the only one of Shakespeare's comedies I hadn't yet seen on stage.

And that's odd, really. I'm unclear how I managed not to see it at least once. My wife remembers seeing it in Ashland in 2012, but for some reason, though I was there, I didn't see it with her. I'm guessing she saw it with our daughter while I saw something else that wasn't age-appropriate for the younger generation. Anyway, the Comedy portion of the Shakespeare canon is now complete for me. Cool!

The Play

Giving a summary of a Shakespearean comedy is pretty pointless. There is confusion of identity, cross-dressing, lost relatives, love triangles (or other shapes), and at least one wedding at the end. This is no different. Plus we get shepherds and a really great motley coat.

But in a bigger sense, this is a play about identity. Part of it deals with the superficial kind of identity, like "who is this person I don't recognize because he is now wearing a hat" that pervades these plays. That's fun and important to the plot, of course. But in a deeper sense, it's more about the self-identification of the characters. For example, a duke is banished by his brother, who usurps his dukedom and sends him off to live in the forest. Rather than sitting around, angrily plotting his revenge and reinstatement, the deposed duke makes peace with his new, rustic life. Similarly, his later-banished daughter escapes to the same forest in disguise and has some interesting explorations of gender identity while disguised as a man and still being wooed by her love interest. A courtier clown falls for a shepherd and the country life.

Much of the play centers around characters coming to grips with who they are, rather than who they thought they were, or who others expect them to be. In the hands of director Chiang a crew of able designers, and some choice music, this becomes a timely vehicle for examining class and gender roles.

The Production

Despite being nearly two-and-a-half hours long (with an intermission), the play feels snappy and engaging. This is in part because there are almost no discernible scene changes. Most are either extremely brief and fluid or just subsumed into the flow of the play. Nina Ball's lovely set transforms quite brilliantly from Duke Frederick's court to the Arden forest, which in this production is actually a dilapidated urban warehouse (really, it works). The transition is handled brilliantly both in the moment and as characters from court later arrive and find themselves in the "forest." Somehow we just accept that there are shepherds and deer here.

The use of some key double casting also facilitates the change of scene. The redoubtable James Carpenter starts the play as the usurper, Duke Frederick, but deftly transitions into his brother, the banished Duke Senior. And Warren David Keith jumps back and forth several times between the servant Adam and Touchstone the clown, to good effect. Jomar Tagatac provides a strong physical presence as both the wrestler, Charles, and Jaques, who slips from foreground to background as easily as he hops onto a platform.

The central characters (to the extent the play has a center, which is debatable) of Rosalind and Orlando are quite strong. Jessika D. Williams resists the temptation to ham up the cross-dressing role as Rosalind dresses as the male "Ganymede," and Patrick Russell, though love-struck, manages to remain remarkably controlled and seems to be understanding the scenario as it develops, rather than simply being smacked by a big reveal at the end. Indeed, the whole production, though humorous, mostly avoids playing for yucks, and instead opts for a more subtle, nuanced playing of the gender roles and relationships.

The ensemble is strong, and the whole production flows so smoothly that intermission feels almost like an interruption (though a necessary one).

Bottom Line

This is a really good rendition of the play, and quite thoughtful and respectful of both the audience and the sensibilities of the community. The courtyard outside the theater holds some materials about the roles of gender and love and such, with input from Oakland's Youth UpRising program. As contemporary society struggles with these matters, it's reassuring to know that a 400-year-old play can help bring out the dialogue. It's interesting to walk out of the theater and hear people speculating on the role of gender and cross-dressing and such in Shakespeare's day.

All in all, I came away impressed with both the stage production and the degree to which Cal Shakes has made the entire endeavor feel extremely relevant to a large swath of the community. This is what theater is about, and it's well worth seeing it.

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