“As You Like It” isn’t quite as you may remember it in Bag & Baggage’s new adaptation. Whether that’s a good thing depends on where you fall on the Shakespeare fan spectrum. Purists may be miffed; more casual followers of the Bard may find this treatment more to their liking.
Cassie Greer, Bag & Baggage’s associate artistic director, has fused Shakespeare’s classic pastoral comedy with a more streamlined 18th-century adaptation by English playwright Charles Johnson that dispenses of several supporting characters (alas, poor Touchstone) and gives one principal character a new love interest. But the production remains true to the play’s thicket of familial, political and romantic entanglements.
To refresh your memory: The quick-witted Rosalind, one of Shakespeare’s most appealing women, falls for Orlando but must abandon thoughts of romance when her usurper uncle, Duke Frederick, banishes her from his home. Frederick’s daughter, Celia, distressed by her father’s act, accompanies her cherished cousin. The women disguise themselves, the “more than common tall” Rosalind as a man, in order to enter the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind’s father, the rightful duke, lives in exile.
Orlando heeds a faithful servant’s advice to flee his jealous and duplicitous brother. He, too, takes refuge in the Forest of Arden, where he whiles away the hours by composing and posting odes to Rosalind. When he encounters her passing as a surprisingly well-spoken lad named Ganymede, she persuades him to pretend that Ganymede is the object of his affections and to practice his sweet nothings on the “fair youth.” To complicate matters further, Ganymede soon makes the acquaintance of a shepherdess who finds him irresistible, to the dismay of the shepherd who’s been pursuing her. Celia, not be left out, finds her own romance amid the trees.
Greer uses nearly every square foot of Bag & Baggage’s snug home, The Vault, inside and out, to neat effect. The performance begins in the outdoor plaza next to The Vault, moves inside for the Forest of Arden scenes, then returns to the plaza for the denouement, the audience literally tagging along on the characters’ journey from the rigid world of titled nobility to the anything-goes land of the lost and back to the rules of decorum after all is sorted out.
Strengths: The cast’s modern-ish dress and mannerisms, as well as several prettily performed ballads, help keep this production grounded while the audience parses its way through two hours’ worth of Elizabethan vocabulary and syntax. T.S. McCormick pulls off a nice double turn as the two dukes. Andrew Beck sweeps amusingly about the stage as the exiled nobleman Jaques, who’s at first aggressively despondent – “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs,” he proclaims – then just as vigorously delirious as he falls in love. Roxanne Stathos switches like quicksilver among three very different characters, including an aged manservant and a pining shepherd.
Most valuable player: As Rosalind, who not only concocts a scheme to keep her would-be lover courting her while she’s seemingly absent but also seeks to direct the course of another romance, Amber Bogdewiecz must carry the play. She does so with ease, energizing every scene she’s in.
Lines of the night: “As You Like It” is the source of one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquys, delivered by Jaques, that which begins: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
Less well-known but no less entertaining is the lovestruck Rosalind’s reaction to learning that her cousin has seen Orlando before she did:
“What did he when thou sawest him? What said he? How looked he? Wherein went he? What makes him here? Did he ask for me? Where remains he?
How parted he with thee? And when shalt thou see him again? Answer me in one word.”
Weakness: Projected above the set throughout the performance are statistics about refugees, meant to emphasize the play’s elements of exile and displaced identity. But the parallel between rich folk waiting out a shift in the political winds and desperate families separated at the U.S. border is a tenuous one. At best, this attempt at topicality falls flat – let’s be honest, everyone’s here for the rom-com.
Takeaway: ‘Tis but a slight matter that this production takes liberties with the original work; go forth and enjoy a sprightly tale in which all’s well that ends well.