Despite having some of Shakespeare’s best-known lines (“All the world’s a stage…”) and one of his most-beloved heroines, As You Like It doesn’t live up to the promise of its title for everyone. The problem is that it’s essentially an Elizabethan rom-com, which concludes with not one, not two, not three, but four weddings. And these amorous payoffs are preceded by a lot of silliness that doesn’t produce anywhere close to an equal amount of laughter.
In the director’s note to her adaptation of As You Like It, Jessica Bauman echoes this assessment, confessing that the play “always kind of bugged [her]” because of its “paper thin plot” and the fact that it’s “not funny enough.” Regarding the latter complaint, her incredibly likeable cast does what they can to up the humor quotient, with mixed results, but that’s not Bauman’s main concern. Her real aim is to give Shakespeare’s comedy some dramatic heft by focusing on its most serious aspect which is often glossed over on the way to all of those happy endings.
Signaling that we’re in for something different, Bauman has redubbed the play Arden/Everywhere, a hint that home, and the emotional impact of losing it, is at the heart of her reimagining. Largely through design choices, but also some modest changes to the text, Bauman connects the diasporic struggles of the play’s characters to those experienced by the 65 million refugees the United Nations has identified throughout the world today, effectively arguing that, in both cases, the pain is there for anyone to see.
After a disorienting, and overdone, balletic prelude, the play begins as it usually does, with attempted fratricide by way of a wrestling match, followed by a dash to the forest, the eponymous Arden, to escape a power-mad narcissist who doesn’t mind crushing lives to achieve his political objectives. Bauman doesn’t draw any direct parallels between Shakespeare’s selfish lunatic, Duke Frederick (Dikran Tulaine), and anyone currently in the news, probably because it would be putting too fine a point on things. But, no matter. You can do it yourself.
And while scrolling through that rogue’s gallery in your head, please also take time to enjoy the gender-bending courtship of Rosalind (Helen Cespedes) and Orlando (Anthony Cason Jr.), which is particularly good in Bauman’s production. Both of them wander around Arden after having fled psychotic family members: in Rosalind’s case, the duke, while for Orlando, it’s his brother Oliver (Kambi Gathesha). Neither of them is much of a threat to their far more powerful relatives, but being chased away adds some needed tension to their love-at-first-sight relationship.
Of course, one of the biggest wrinkles is that, for safety’s sake and unbeknownst to Orlando, Rosalind has taken on a new gender identity, here signified by that most masculine of clothing options, a beanie (in Nicole Slaven’s costumes the characters mostly dress like the Baruch students in the audience). The only ones in on the secret are her cousin Celia (Liba Vaynberg) and a court jester Touchstone (Dennis Kozee), who have both accompanied Rosalind to Arden. Nobody really cares where the obnoxious Touchtone goes, but Celia’s presence on the journey is yet another complication, since she is the duke’s daughter.
With sweet-natured chemistry to spare, Cespedes and Cason are an irresitable pairing (no, really, I tried to resist). And Kozee’s understated take on Touchstone is an approach more actors should try, since it counteracts a lot of the character’s natural cloyingness. But the real standout is Gathesha whose Oliver is so charmingly rotten that you’re willing to overlook the shaky motivation for his evil actions.
Gathesha also lends his captivating singing voice to Shakespeare’s most musical play. As you might expect, though, Bauman and sound designer Matt Otto have not gone for the traditional set list. Instead, a few of the cast’s immigrant actors perform songs in their native languages, which certainly aids Bauman’s vision for the play. But it’s a welcome change regardless, because, quite simply, it’s just more beautiful.
Scenic designer Gabriel Hainer Evansohn also helps Bauman diverge from the expected. His run-down Arden, with its rusted metal, broken cinder blocks, and piles of wooden pallets, is not a forest at all. It’s a refugee camp, where the duke’s outcasts while away their time kicking around a soccer ball and dreaming of better days.
But it’s not just the characters in the camp who hope for more; it’s also the actors portraying them, which we learn when they break the fourth wall to tell their own heartbreaking stories of dislocation. Even if Rosalind and Orlando and the rest of the Arden denizens leave you cold, the actual people on that stage shouldn’t.
Arden/Everywhere (through October 28, 2017)
New Feet Productions
Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.ardeneverywhere.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission