There’s a theory regarding the title of the play. It’s unconfirmed, but it’s a good one. Shakespeare was only too aware that the popular box-office hits of his day were romantic comedies. London audiences craved them, particularly romantic comedies with a pastoral setting. The gentle existence of idealized, country life appealed to city audiences.
Aware of what audiences wanted, but not necessarily wanting to take responsibility for the end result, he took the work of others – a story called Rosalynde by Thomas Lodge and the Tale of Gamelyn by an unknown author – and put his own Shakespearean spin on things, adding characters, tweaking existing ones, and essentially writing to order, including popular elements of the day such as wrestling, song and dance, humorous jabs at the French, and not one but four weddings. When it was finally written and presented to a live audience it was as though Shakespeare had said, here it is, enjoy; you should because it’s exactly as you like it.
Shakespeare was right to be wary. Critics responses have not always been positive, and students of the bard have often thought it to be lacking in quality. But As You Like It always was and will forever remain a crowd-pleaser, which is exactly the best way to describe Southwest Shakespeare Company’s new production of the pastoral comedy, playing now in repertory with The Taming of the Shrew until March 9 at Mesa Arts Center in Mesa.
The story of Rosalind, one of Shakespeare’s most rounded and popular female characters, will always have great appeal no matter how a director chooses to interpret the setting; she’s so well written. In this enjoyably comical SWS production, director Quinn Mattfeld has his characters in present day costume performing on a mostly barren stage, echoing visions of how the play was originally presented at the Globe, but in suits and ties at the court, and in pleasant country peasant dresses and relaxed attire in the forest.
The set designed by Patrick Walsh is a re-painted version of the same structure used in the recent productions of both Frankenstein and Pericles, Prince of Tyre. One of the nice touches is how the construction begins as a backdrop to the court of Duke Frederick, then slowly develops into the Forest of Arden. With each new scene, an extra layer of green netting is flung over the long balcony, then later over the handrails to the steps that flank either side of Walsh’s scenic design. Like Sondheim’s fairy tale characters, by the time Shakespeare’s principal players have all arrived into the woods just ahead of the intermission, the Duke’s court has fully developed into the draped greenery of a forest.
First performed in 1600, you could argue that after more than four hundred years, surely anything needed to be discussed about As You Like It has already been written or interpreted. But like most of Shakespeare’s work (and As You Like It is a good example) a new generation will always see something new that relates to them in a way it could never have done when seen through the lens of a previous generation. The perception of an audience changes with time. Live theater is a living thing, a product of its present-day environment, and directors have to acknowledge that its audiences are the same. As long as the production honors the original work and takes into account the author’s intention, updating settings and, when appropriate, humor should be welcomed.
Thus when country girl Audrey (Kelly Nicole) comes into the audience and dances with a Mesa Arts Center patron, or when Corin the elderly shepherd (Jim Coates) hands an audience member in the front row a fishing rod, then later when he reaches for it back and asks, “Catch anything?” it flows naturally with the pleasant, likable nature of the piece. Plus, both occurrences happen in the forest, a place when contrasted with the oppressive nature of the court of Duke Frederick (Beau Heckman), plays by its own rules of acceptable behavior
There are other directorial flourishes that change things a little. Shakespeare’s wrestling between Charles (Dalton T. Davis) and Orlando (Phillip Herrington) becomes a bout of martial arts (choreographed by Keath Hall) exhibited by two men with bodies by Nautilus (“Damn!” exclaimed a woman aloud seated directly behind yours truly when the shirts came off). The comical Touchstone (an equally comical Jeff Deglow) sunbathes with shades and a neck reflector when talking to Corin by a lake. And when Silvius (Seth Scott) mistakenly makes the wrong exit, his repeated gallop across the stage to the right exit becomes a literal running joke.
Plus, the acoustic music by Drew Leatham and Kyle Sorrell that accompanies the songs has an agreeably present-day sound. It even incorporates a rendition of The Zombies’ 60’s hit Time of the Season as all the players assemble in the woods. There are more songs and dances in the play than in any other Shakespeare production, essentially making As You Like It his musical comedy.
Sadly, among the changes, a victim of a cut is Rosalind’s epilogue, perhaps the one area that disappoints. After the upbeat finale of four weddings and the entire cast engaged in an upbeat, celebratory Irish jig, the pacing of Rosalind (Betsy Mugavero) remaining on stage asking the audience to applause may admittedly have taken the wind out of the production’s sails, but by removing the moment altogether (especially when you expect it to be there) robs the audience of spending a last intimate moment with such a well performed and fully realized character. In Shakespeare’s time, when only men were allowed on stage and all female roles were played by males, the epilogue, usually a male-dominated moment, might have been all the more amusing when you consider that what they were watching was a man pretending to be a woman, pretending to be a man, pretending to be a woman in order to win the heart of a man.
Many of the actors in the ensemble are the same ones you saw in Frankenstein and Pericles and are currently performing in The Taming of the Shrew (to be reviewed next week). They do an admirable job. But you’ll remember Kyle Sorrell’s Jacques, who observes and comments but is never really a part of the action, Celia (Racquel Mckenzie) whose playful nature and sense of fun is infectious, and Mugavero’s Rosalind who fully fleshes Shakespeare’s contemporary cross-dressing heroine up to date with a boundless, comical energy that makes her seem vital.
And for good measure, the director himself becomes a part of the play. After an introductory greeting letting Mesa audiences know of SWS’s oncoming productions, the Duke’s men, lead by Kyle Sorrell, enter, interrupting the speech “By order of the Duke” and drag the protesting director off as if arrested. “You can’t do this,” Quinn Mattfeld declares, “I wrote Frankenstein!” “And I’m the Prince of Tyre,” Sorrell sardonically dismisses, then proceeds to tell the audience in Elizabethan English to turn off all cell phones. As for the hard candy, unwrapeth them now. In this As You Like It, all the world really is a stage, and all the men and women, and even the director, are merely players. Now that’s funny.
As You Like It continues at Mesa Arts Center in Mesa until March 9
Pictures Courtesy of Laura Durant