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As You Like It at Cal Shakes programme

“It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue; but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord the prologue.”
– William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Epilogue by Rosalind

It’s interesting to ponder what Shakespeare would have made of the social progressions that have developed over the past 400 years. In a way, you could argue that the endings of Taming of the Shrew, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice reflect not only the bigotry of the time, but, possibly, the author’s own biases. Then again, you could also argue that the central female, Black, and Jewish characters in those plays are defined by their nuanced humanity, and are all victims of a bigoted world that won’t rest until it has broken each of them to its will. In a world where university rapists get off with a slap on the wrist, Black men are murdered on a daily basis, and the election of a racist new US president has led to a rash of desecrations of Jewish cemeteries, then the stories of Kate, Othello, and Shylock are more relevant than ever.

But what of the social progressions Shakespeare could never have predicted, such as the LGBTQ+ movement? Gay people have existed as long as humanity itself, and The Bard was clearly aware of them (Antonio from Twelfth Night being a prime example, and the sex orientations of both Shakespeare and contemporary Christopher Marlowe are still debated), but we can only speculate as to what he would have made of the rise of transgender identity and visibility. Though crossdressing was a recurring motif in his plays, it was often to subvert traditional gender roles – often with women dressing as men to assume the roles of power that would otherwise be denied them for simply having been born women. Off-hand, I can’t think of any characters of who longed to permanently alter their gender, but then I can’t recall every line of every play by heart. And I’d be remiss not to mention the fact in Shakespeare’s time, all of the female roles were played by fresh-faced young boys.

I bring this up because the contemporary perspective of gender identity is how Cal Shakes wants audiences to examine their new production of The Bard’s gender-bending comedy As You Like It. The wall outside the amphitheater’s Sharon Simpson Center – the onsite café – features a collection of boards that ask visitors to reconsider the concept of gender. Similarly, when Rosalind addresses the audience with epilogue excerpted above – the only one of Shakespeare’s to be delivered by a female character – it’s punctuated by her fellow cast-members matching each of her classic gender descriptions with a contemporary one (“non-binary,” and the like). It’s an honorable intention, but intentions alone do not great theatre make.

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In any other circumstance, Rosalind and Orlando’s budding relationship would be celebrated by everyone around them. Unfortunately, our would-be young lovers find themselves individually banished after they each fall out of favor of Duke Frederick, ruler of the land.

As luck would have it, they each find their way to the Forest of Arden, residence of Frederick’s exiled older brother, Duke Senior. As a love-struck Orlando pines for Rosalind, Rosalind has disguised herself as a boy named Ganymede, who may have just the right advice for how Orlando should woo the woman of his dreams.

It tends to rub me the wrong way when dramatists try to be what-they-think-is-clever by flipping the tone of an established piece. Granted, in Shakespeare’s time there were only two genres, per se – tragedy and comedy – and he clearly loved exploring the gray areas in-between (just look at laughs to be found in Hamlet or the title character of The Merchant of Venice). Still, that doesn’t mean the laughs should be played for drama, or vice versa. Doing that doesn’t subvert the material so much as it shows an ignorance of it.

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I get that Jaques is meant to be a contradictory personality to the main players – never matching their joviality – but the way this show makes him clinically depressed struck all the wrong notes for me. No matter how “serious” Jaques gets, there’s no reason for his “Fool in the forest” monologue to be delivered like a eulogy. It’s one thing for his “All the world’s a stage…” speech to have gravity, but the Jaques of this production is one suggesting that death is preferable to any joy life can provide. It’s definitely the biggest mistake the show makes.

Which is a shame, because director Desdemona Chiang’s intention for the show seems to be to otherwise encourage the characters and the audience to have fun. From the first-act wrestling match between Orlando and Charles – in which the latter wears a luchador mask, both use chairs in their appropriate WWE fashion, and the audience is given team flags – to Rosalind and Celia pinkie-swearing to the curtain call having Rosalind sing Laura Mvula’s “That’s Alright;” the show is always at its best when we know why each and every one of these characters loves being alive. When Rosalind and Celia have their Act III, sc. 2 moment together, it’s a microcosm of almost everything in this production going right, and it’s a feeling that should have been carried throughout the entire show.

Chiang certainly gets the most out of her talented cast. I’ve never seen Jessika Williams perform before, but she brings just the right amount of humor, vulnerability, and enviable self-assurance to Rosalind. The performance is well-complimented by Maryssa Wanlass as her pinkie-swearing partner-in-crime, Celia, who is able to distinguish herself without being regulated to mere sidekick. Craig Marker – who recently brought a lot of laughs to an otherwise inconsistent production of Noises Off! – is equally good here as the duty-bound, then love-struck Oliver. As Oliver’s younger brother Orlando, Patrick Russell is best when not screaming his head off, such as in the opening scene or his arrival in the forest. The same is also true of Jomar Tagatac, who’s best scenes as Jaques are when he isn’t delivering the character’s most famous monologues.

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It would take me too long to list off all the great moments from cast mates Patty Gallagher, William Hodgson, Warren David Keith, and Lisa Hori-Garcia. Let’s just say that not a single one of them wastes a moment on stage. I’m hesitant to focus on James Carpenter’s dual performance as the Dukes, Frederick and Senior, because I once had the honor of acting alongside the man (in a Cal Shakes show, no less). But given how vital both characters are to the story, I’d be remiss if I said nothing. So let me say that his performances speak for themselves and were a joy to watch.

It was an equivalent joy to watch the work of Chiang’s Cal Shakes crew. The play begins in an idyllic garden scene before Nina Ball’s set rotates 180° to reveal the warehouse-esque setting of Duke Senior and company. The two best transitions show Carpenter changing from his snazzy “Frederick” threads into the boho “Senior” linens as the set rotates around him. It’s a slam dunk move effortlessly pulled off by actor, director, set designer, costumer, and stage crew. Since I saw the show during a Sunday matinee, it was, unfortunately, all-but-impossible to perceive Masha Tsimring’s lights. I did, however, have a chance to appreciate Sharath Patel’s sound design, particularly the soft chimes of an early scene when Rosalind and Orlando begin courting.

I can only imagine how much Monday Night Raw Dave Maier had to watch for “research” into choreographing the wrestling scene, but it paid off. Since a scene like that is easy to remember, I was also impressed by the choreography of Oliver’s opening with Orlando, as well as Orlando’s holding a knife to Jaques’ neck. Both subtle, but effective.

As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s “easy” shows. That isn’t to say that it lacks the quality of some of his more complicated works (Henry V, Julius Caesar, Midsummer…), just that a show like this one, Twelfth Night, and Taming of the Shrew are so popular because they’re easy access for those not familiar with Shakespeare. They’re easy to follow and are often performed for audiences of all ages; much the way people are introduced to opera via The Magic Flute or Tosca.

It’s fun to experiment, but after 400 years, there are things that work and things that don’t. This isn’t a bad production, it’s just one that, at times, seems to wish it were another show entirely.

GRADE:                C+

As You Like It is scheduled to run until 18th of June at Cal Shakes’ Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours, including one 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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