Every other year, Fresno State’s theatre department mounts a Shakespearean production (they also do a musical every other year) and this As You Like It is a fine example of how to keep Shakespeare in the repertory. It’s fun, elegant, and doesn’t get in its own way.
It’s complicated, but at its heart As You Like It is a farce about romance, dysfunctional families, jealous brothers, cross dressing and love when you least expect it. Duke Frederick has banished his brother Duke Senior because he wants to rule the dukedom and because he’s jealous of how beloved his brother is by their subjects. Oliver de Bois banishes his younger brother Orlando because he wants all of the inheritance for himself, and for his jealousy over how beloved his brother is by their community.
Duke Senior and his courtiers find safe haven in the Forest of Arden, living a lot like Robin Hood. Orlando does the same. In the meantime, Duke Frederick has banished his niece Rosalind, because he’s jealous about how beloved she is by their community (sensing a theme?). In defiance, his daughter Celia leaves with her cousin and they head to Arden to find Rosalind’s father. Rosalind dresses as a man for protection. Celia does not. Before they leave, however, Rosalind falls in love-at-first-sight with Orlando. And vice versa.
They all meet up in the Forest. (It must be getting pretty crowded there). Rosalind, in disguise as a man, agrees to help Orlando practice wooing “Rosalind”, should he ever see her again. So, yeah it’s complicated and sweet and quite amusing – when you let go of the fact that the actor playing Rosalind could rarely pass for a man in modern times.
The Fresno State Theatre production is just as sweet and lovely as the story. The modern setting of the dukedom being a swanky, competitive L.A. gym and the Forest of Arden being amid the Northern California Redwoods is enough to frame the story well, but doesn’t attempt to exert control over it. It sets the stage and then lets the action roll without getting in the way.
Scenic designer Caleb Wilson employs a few classic techniques to good effect shifting from the mirrored, harsh world of the gym to the more natural world of the forest. The audience was suitably impressed with the scene transition, which goes to show that often the simplest techniques pack the biggest punch. Regina Harris’ lighting design is understated but beautiful in its illumination of the the Forest of Arden. It has the warm colors we love in forests, but with just the touch of shade that comes with all of those trees. Costumes by Elizabeth Payne employ a good color story from the gym to the forest, and the use of all of those knits in the forest help keep the courtiers from seeming too flat. The textures tell a story of their own. I also particularly enjoyed the Rocky Balboa/Mickey costume nod in introducing Orlando and Adam.
Kathleen McKinley’s staging is full of brisk movement and variety, and the play as a whole is very well spoken. It is odd that with such briskness, I still found the play rather long for one of Shakespeare’s comedies, but since the majority of it was a pleasure to look at and listen to, that’s a small criticism.
Two moments where the production exceeded itself were:
When, at the end of the “Ages of Man” speech, Jacques (Brooke Aiello) moves stage left and delivers
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
The courtiers gather around old Adam (Andrew Trevino) and a light shift puts them in position like a Caravaggio painting of an old man meeting death. It’s a poignant moment, driven home by Aiello’s delivery of the lines.
The second is the musical transition to Orlando’s entrance nailing poems to trees in honor of his love for Rosalind. The musical direction by McKinley is particularly fine and the four-part harmony with a violin makes for an emotionally mature take on folk music. The music leads into a shift into magical realism where Orlando (Anthony teNyenhuis) bounds on stage and poems fall from the sky. It’s an arresting image and, with the music, is emotionally potent enough to feed into Orlando’s
Hang there, my verse, in witness of my love:
And thou, thrice-crowned queen of night, survey
With thy chaste eye, from thy pale sphere above,
Thy huntress’ name that my full life doth sway.
which teNyenhuis delivers with full-chested vim.
Shakespeare’s ability to offer such heightened moments as these in the middle of a farce – and a director’s ability to make the most of them – are what keep Shakespeare plays in the repertory.
This production is full of charming and textured performances. R.L. Preheim and Dominic Chapa as the principal villains manage to be the villains you feel sorry for rather than the villains you want to see revenged. R.L. “Larry” Preheim is also Duke Senior and manages to have charm without the condescension that one often finds in the role.
Dylan Mark Murphy’s Touchstone is actually funny (hard to find in a Touchstone) in a Jonathan Van Ness “Accept My Extraness” sort of way. And the chemistry between Evangelia Pappas and Alexis Elisa Macedo as Rosalind and Celia is endearing, both giving grounded performances that can be occasionally pleasingly off-kilter. Pappas does a good job with Rosalind’s skeptical nature and verbal wit.
My favorites, though, are (and some will accuse me of bias – but I feel this is supportable!) Brooke Aiello’s Jacques and Anthony teNyenhuis’s Orlando. Both of these characters can be notoriously difficult to nail down.
The one character who doesn’t fit in anywhere in the As You Like It scenario is Jacques, who is generally unimpressed by everyone except Touchstone, whose radical individuality and wordplay snaps Jacques out of their melancholy for a brief time. Played sensitively by Aiello, this Jacques is a seeker, a questioner, a traveler with no fixed destination point, which can make anyone depressed. Aiello hits Jacques’ essential notes without pounding on them too hard. As a result, this is one of the few likable Jacqueses I’ve met.
And Orlando. Dear, dear Orlando. I have never seen an Orlando that didn’t come across as a . . . (forgive me, Anthony) . . . a dolt. Because Orlando has to go so long believing Rosalind to be a boy, when the evidence of a modern eye gives away the lie, Orlando can seem deadly stupid, and therefore audiences can be very impatient with him.
But in this production, teNyenhuis finds each little moment to suspect the game “Ganymede/Rosalind” is playing. One of the gifts teNyenhuis has is the ability to show what his characters know and when they know it clearly to an audience – and then make a solid choice as a result. His Orlando isn’t fully taken in for very long, and at some point seems to know it is Rosalind pretending to be a guy. But he makes the choice to trust her actions and see how things play out – an act of respect and esteem for his beloved.
This endears him to me. And that has never happened with any Orlando EVER. This endears him because for once I saw an Orlando that Rosalind was lucky to have, not just a Rosalind that Orlando was lucky to have. They seemed better paired in this production than what I usually see.
As You Like It is an odd Shakespearean comedy for modern sensibilities and not just because of the plausibility of the cross-dressing lover scenario. The play’s comedy mostly depends upon urban courtiers mocking the “hayseed” locals with impunity. As much as the court of Duke Senior is reveling in their rustic lifestyle, it’s as though they know it to be temporary. They’re all perfectly happy to return to their gym franchises at the end and leave the “country copulatives” to their own poverty. It’s a sort of Shakespearean “Green Acres” but without the irony regarding upper-class pretensions.
But I don’t know what any production can do about that except embrace it as a farce. And in this case, the whole of the production more than makes up for its parts in terms of Shakespearean entertainment.
There are two performances of As You Like It remaining.
Tonight 12/13 and Saturday, 12/14 at the John Wright Theatre at Fresno State. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information HERE.