As You Like It (1599-1600) is one of those gentle Shakespearean comedies which — like Twelfth Night and Two Gentlemen of Verona — on some level seem more relevant to our time than to the Bard's own. Of necessity, a young woman disguises herself as a boy, meets (or re-meets) a lovesick swain, and improvises her circuitous way back to femininity and, usually, marriage.
This is Billy Wilder territory, or at least Blake Edwards (cf., Some Like it Hot and Victor/Victoria.) We recognize the device, and add our own modern responses to circumstances which, in Shakespeare's time, were understood to be less about sexuality than sex itself. There's a fascinating drama to be written about the place of boy actors in the Elizabethan theater, who after all played every young female role in Shakespeare's plays. As Ian McKellan once observed, it's no wonder these girls get out of their dresses and into trousers as quickly as possible.
What's especially striking about the boyish guise Rosalind assumes in As You Like It is the name she chooses for herself: Ganymede. Whether or not one subscribes to the notion that Shakespeare was homosexual (I suspect he was at the very least fluid), the symbolism of that name cannot have been lost on the Bard. Ganymede was a youth whose beauty so enraptured Zeus that the god carried him off to be his (official) cup bearer and (unofficial) lover. Rosalind, in the guise of a boy, purports to "cure" Orlando of his passion for his beloved Rosalind by entreating the oblivious suitor to pretend that "he" is Rosalind ("Come, woo me"). You can almost hear Julie Andrews crying out in disbelief: "A woman pretending to be a man, pretending to be a woman?"
That's but one of several plot spells that bind this Shakespearean enchantment, and which include: a banished lord (Duke Senior) and his usurping brother (Duke Frederick); a further set of battling brothers (Orlando and Oliver); Orlando's aged factotum (Adam); a wrestler (Charles) engaged to maul or murder Orlando; the exiled daughters of Frederick (Celia) and Duke Senior (Rosalind); their ubiquitous jester (Touchstone) and his eventual mate (Audrey) who herself is saddled with a dull-witted suitor (William); a melancholy lord (Jaques); a puzzled shepherd (Corin); his besotted apprentice (Silvius); and his unmoved beloved (Phebe), who in turn develops an uncontrollable passion for "Ganymede." All of these entanglements are sorted out through the Forest of Arden, a rustic Neverland that, like the enchanted island of The Tempest, serves an annealing agent to human tensions.
The StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance is presenting an As You Like It in Swain Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill which, if not wholly engaging, is at least an enjoyable divertissement.
What the production (which in the main has been brightly mounted by StreetSigns artistic director Dr. Derek Goldman) lacks is ardor. The Orlando here, Lennardo De Laine, has exactly two aspects: grimly determined, and smilingly vague. There is little variety, fire, or passion in his performance; he doesn't seem the sort to excitedly post his boyish love poetry in the forest, and his reserve dampens the entire enterprise.
Happily, however, Rob Hamilton's scenic design lends its own aura of enchantment. His easily revolved set features brown, slanting wooden slats for the dispirited Court which, when turned, reveal the green-dappled trees of Arden. Shakespeare of Avon was well aware of the differences between court and country, and nowhere is this in greater evidence than in his comedies, which tend to the out of doors. The costumes of Mikyuki Su and Diana Waldier are, generally, deft: earth tones of brown and gray for Duke Senior's forest Court, except for the Duke himself, resplendent in deep green. There is rich purple for Rosalind in both her guises, although her dress for the court scene is badly fitted. Celia sports an equally apt burgundy, but both costumes wrinkle freely and to distraction.
The only part of Dr. Goldman's concept that strikes me as absolutely wrong is his use of anachronism. As this consists solely of a wrestling match modeled on the WWF (WWF: blaring rock chords, highly tentative "dirty dancing," a mirrored ball) and an electric guitar, it's too sparingly used to constitute a style. Further, the casting of Carl Martin (or at least the baring of his torso) borders on the cruel; the audience laughs at, not with, him. Later, as the lovelorn but dim-witted Will, he looks disturbingly like Eraserhead.
The remainder of the cast is highly variable. As Duke Frederick the gifted John Murphy is called upon to glower and threaten, but little else. Chris Chiron's Touchstone isn't nearly as funny as he believes he is, and like Orlando cannot caper convincingly. He also sports frightening facial make-up, which looks as though he's just been mauled by an especially fearsome alley cat. As the god of marriage Hymen, Thomas "Tekay" King appears amid acres of gold lame, surrounded by light and so much like the Queen of the Night we half expect a Mozart aria to spill from his lips, instead of which we get something closer to an old Negro spiritual. There are also some peculiar pronunciations among the cast: Rosalind stresses "the quote-id-ian of love" while another actor speaks "sinewy" as "sin-YOU-ee."
Although briefly glimpsed, the Duke Senior of Rick Lonon is charitable, jocund, and at peace with himself. Christopher Salazar is properly manic as the lovelorn Silvius, well matched by the blasé Phebe of Georgia Martin. As the shepherdess Audrey, Hannah Blevins is gleefully inane, and the always-dependable Jordan Smith lends the perfect combination of dignity and foolishness to Corin.
As Rosalind, Vanessa Leigh Davis has grace, poise, and feeling yet she's also, somehow, a little dull. In the persona of Ganymede, however, she opens up just as Rosalind herself embraces her newfound masculine freedom. She can be bossy, belligerent, cunning, and sly without losing a boyish humor laced with generosity. (Though she speaks the repeated refrain, "And I for no woman" more as a statement of fact than an emotional declaration.) Likewise does the forest, in conjunction with her new trouser-role) bring out the ebullience and teasing sense of fun in the Celia of Sarah Kocz. As Celia she's earnest, even drear, but as the shepherdess "Aliena," freed from the manners and mores of the court, Kocz blooms precipitously; Arden, or Dame Nature, shines a natural light on these two former prisoners of castle and decorum.
Best of all is the fulsome Jaques of the always-splendid Elisabeth Lewis Corley. With her appearance, size, character, wit, and variety arrive at last. Corley revels in Jaques' contradictions, the embrace of his own melancholy so fixed that, when it is briefly banished by Touchstone's wit, he must flee the source of this unexpected contentment. To Jaques is given the play's poetic highlight, the so-called "Ages of Man" speech, and rather than make a meal of it as lesser mortals might, Corley speaks softly, with a weary resignation that is almost unbearably sad yet with no trace of bathos. This, Corley tells us simply, is what life is: we're born, we live, we decline, we die. In the midst of such merrymaking as resolves As You Like It, we needn't wonder Jaques loves his melancholy so; it's honest, and it seldom disappoints.
The StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance presents As You Like It Thursday-Saturday, June 19-21 and 26-28, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 22 and 29, at 2 p.m. in the Studio 6 Theatre in Swain Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill. $14 Friday-Saturday and $12 Thursday and Sunday. (NOTE: StreetSigns also offers student rush, senior discounts, and group rates.) 919/843-3865. http://www.streetsigns.org/.