Shakespeare’s As You Like It is all about romantic love and happy endings. In an accessible and lively production, director Desdemona Chiang has fashioned the play down to its essentials (less than two and one-half hours, including one intermission) to the pleasure of most of the opening night’s down-jacketed audience, but to the disappointment of Shakespeare traditionalists. So be prepared for minor characters to disappear unexpectedly from the play and for some loose ends to be left untied. But the essential that remains makes the comedy easier for Shakespeare newbies to follow and enjoy.
Rosalind (topnotch Jessika D. Williams), the daughter of an overthrown Duke, lives with her cousin and best bud, Celia (lovely Maryssa Wanlass), daughter of the usurping evil Duke Frederick (both Dukes are well-played by James Carpenter). Rosalind meets Orlando (engaging Patrick Russell) at a wrestling match, of all places, and they are immediately smitten with each other. Similar to Rosalind’s unfortunate family situation, Orlando’s happiness and future are being ruined by his mean-spirited older brother Oliver (Craig Marker), who tightly controls the family funds and mistreats Orlando. To escape the evil Duke’s wrath, Rosalind and Orlando, separately, and without the other’s knowledge, flee to the Forest of Arden.
Rosalind, disguised as a young man, and Celia, dressed as a shepherdess, escape with the court jester, Touchstone (Warren David Keith). Celia adopts the name, Aliena (Latin for stranger), while Rosalind becomes Ganymede, taking the then well-known name of a Greek mythological shepherd who symbolized a beautiful young man who attracted male admirers.
While living the sylvan life in the forest, Rosalind, posing as Ganymede, meets Orlando, who confesses to his new male friend his love of Rosalind. Hijinks follow, especially when the shepherdess Phoebe (Lisa Hori-Garcia) becomes infatuated with Ganymede, while Phoebe herself is being pursued by Silvius (William Thomas Hodgson). Other characters meet in the forest and fall in love, until the comedy ends happily with family reunions and four weddings followed by an upbeat song and dance number. Beneath the gender-bending storyline of As You Like It are messages about the meaning of self-identity and family.
Most of the acting was effective, particularly Jessika D. Williams in her Cal Shakes debut. Usually I’m not a fan of broad comedy, but this version of As You Like It could have benefited from it in places, including stronger reactions to the unwinding of Rosalind’s masquerade, which seemed rushed.
Cal Shakes’ new Artistic Director Eric Ting wants to lead the company toward more contemporary social relevance, which is all to the good when it fits the play. Some companies add what they believe to be relevant and modern affects to Shakespeare’s plays, but often they seem to be inserted simply for the sake of change.
In As You Like It, for example, the Forest of Arden is not a forest. Rather, it is a concrete urban scaffold structure, which looks as though it belongs underneath a freeway. Yet the play’s characters live in the woods, and there is a lot of dialogue about herding sheep and hunting deer. I question this curious choice, as well as the use of contemporary songs, including Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin and Meredith Willson’s Til There Was You (written for his musical The Music Man and later covered by The Beatles), rather than adding melody to the songs that Shakespeare wrote for the play, or omitting music altogether. However, these interpretations didn’t prevent me from enjoying the performance. Seeing As You Like It is a lovely way to spend an afternoon or evening.
The California Shakespeare Theatre, with its bucolic open-air amphitheater, complete with comfortable seats and blankets ($2 donation), with good food and drink available for purchase as well as picnic facilities, has certainly come a long way from its origin when performances were held in Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park, and we had to bring our own chairs.
As You Like It is playing at the California Shakespeare Theatre through June 18. Complimentary shuttle from Orinda BART begins two hours before curtain. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Cal Shakes online.