‘AS YOU LIKE IT’
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Rating (out of 5): ★★★
One of the most interesting things about the plays of Shakespeare is how powerfully they work as showcases of a stage director’s view of the world, their relative aesthetic values, and the ingenuity they bring to their interpretation of a particular play. Case in point is the current, season-opening production of “As You Like It.” The comedy was directed by Rosa Joshi, the co-founder of Seattle’s upstart crow collective (the company’s official name is free of capital letters), which presents classical plays with all-female and non-binary casts. Her 2018 OSF production of “Henry V” was one of the year’s most acclaimed shows.
With Joshi’s arrival at OSF came last year’s new commitment to providing pronouns of those actors, directors and artists who wish to have them included in the OSF Playbill, which lists all company members. That’s been a welcome addition, and it stands as an underscore to Joshi’s gender fluid approach to casting and interpreting “As You Like It,” a somewhat slight comedy (not the director’s usual playground) in which a bit of transformative gender-swapping was already part of the plot.
Hardly the most grounded and coherent of the Bard’s comedies, “As You Like It” is generally best when approached as a fairytale, and Joshi’s imaginative staging of the opening scenes give us an impressively fantastical dose of fable-tinged atmosphere. To a musical score resembling the tick-tock regularity of a timepiece, a procession of courtiers move in united lockstep, tracing patterns up and down through some oppressive city.
The court and country is in a state of nervous lockdown in the wake of a hostile takeover by the treacherous Duke Frederick (Kevin Kennerly), who’s banished his sister, Duke Senior (Rachel Crowl), and taken her place as ruler. The ejected duke, having fled with numerous loyal members of her court, is now hiding in the forest of Arden, where she’s created a free-spirited rural refuge from the brutal authoritarianism of the court, where her daughter Rosalind (Jessica Ko), who’s remained behind out of love for her best friend and cousin, the evil Duke’s daughter Celie (Kate Hurster). Following a meet-cute with the young Orlando (Roman Zaragoza), who falls hard for Rosalind, both Orlando and Rosalind are banished too, for separate reasons having to do with Duke Frederick’s growing paranoia. With nowhere else to go, each ends up in Arden, Orlando bringing along his family servant Adam (Tyrone Wilson), and Rosalind (now disguised as a boy) bringing Celia and the sarcastic but faithful court jester Touchstone (Rex Young).
What follows – providing what passes for plot — is mainly the beginnings and/or endings of a series of love relationships, each awkward romance watched over and warmly commented upon by the benevolently bohemian Duke Senior. Presented here as a kind of forest-dwelling Anna Madrigal (from Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City”), the Duke welcomes her castoff flock of love-struck ducklings with a generous sense of affection, worldly wisdom, and go-for-your-life encouragement. Somewhat countering the Duke’s upbeat positivity is the melancholy courtier Jacques (Erica Sullivan), who is having a hard time adjusting to her new life as part of a merry band of song-singing hunter-gatherers.
There is much that is thought-provoking and honorable and ground-breaking about Joshi’s staging, and the performance I saw was clearly engaging to those younger members of the audience who were presumably seeing “As You Like It” for the first time. So why did it feel so flat and distant and emotionally tepid to me? Perhaps it’s a bit too full of ideas. At times, it seemed as if Joshi’s clever inventions and alterations were actually working against Shakespeare’s giddy simplicity, and not in ways that improve the emotional experience.
Though it’s wonderful to see Jacques portrayed by a young woman – an idea that initially seems rich with possibility — Sullivan never really makes us believe that her “melancholy Jacques” is all that melancholy. She’s more annoyed, and even excited about what’s happening, than actually morose or weighed down by her existence. As such, the character never displays the depth of aching soul and battered wisdom that Jacques was written to convey. In fact, her contrarian observations are delivered with such glee and energy, she seems more like an irony-affected hipster or internet troll than a weary woman who’s seen too much of the world’s pain to want to contribute any of her own to it. I never realized how important Jacques’ sense of depressiveness is to the tone of “As You Like It” until presented with a Jacques that brings almost none of it.
I enjoyed Sarah Ryung Clement’s impressively adaptable set design, a mix of scaffolding, ladders and hanging fabric, which transforms from the oppressive court to the wide-open forest with a few simple and clever adjustments. And Joshi’s continued determination to shake up long-held gender assumptions on the stage, introducing non-binary pronouns, committing to using trans actors in major roles, is welcome, necessary and truly exciting. It’s just too bad that there isn’t more about this production of “As You Like It” that is as exhilarating and powerful as its own willingness to shake things up.
(‘As You Like It’ runs through October 26 in the Angus Bowmer Theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland. For information on show dates and times, and the full OSF Schedule, visit OSFAshland.org).