Shakespearean directors, scholars and critics may never reach a consensus about the right way to stage a Shakespeare play. Heated arguments will break out over whether there should be a modern concept or if it should be staged in traditional Elizabethan dress. Some will forever maintain that the language is a hurdle the actors must surmount to get to the emotional truth of the play, while others proclaim that the language is everything. Everyone has an opinion and everyone will defend that opinion as plain fact.
The current Storm Theatre offering of As You Like It does not take a firm stance on either side of the debate, but what it does is perhaps more important: it entertains. At the end of the day, Shakespeare is meant to be experienced, not studied, and Artistic Director Peter Dobbins and his cast give their audience a truly delightful theatrical experience. (As You Like It closes this weekend, with shows Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, at the Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame (114th Street and Morningside Park).
There are many tried and true trappings to be found, including sibling rivalry, mistaken identity, and, of course, love at first sight. What makes As You Like It special is its spot on commentary on the nature of humanity’s most basic struggles: with loyalty, love, selfishness, and survival. This production does not shed any new light on the play’s themes, but wisely focuses on Shakespeare’s wit and warmth, allowing the audience to delight in the escapades and truisms of some of the canon’s most beloved characters and draw their own conclusions.
Rosalind (played by Erin Teresa Beirnard, a Storm Theatre veteran) and Orlando (played by Mauricio Tafur Salgado) have been denied their proper inheritance and are therefore forced to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Rosalind’s father, Duke Senior, has been usurped by his younger brother Duke Frederick (both played by Joe Danbusky), and is living in the Forest of Arden with his loyal followers. Rosalind is originally allowed to stay at court as a companion to Duke Frederick’s daughter Celia (Laura Bozzone), till banished by her uncle, jealous of her reputation. Celia chooses to flee the court with her.
Rosalind and Orlando meet at Duke Frederick’s court, before he is also exiled. Their instant love is thwarted as quickly as it began, sparking their mutual quests not only for a new home but also each other.
As You Like It would not be an authentic Shakespearean comedy without the element of identity confusion, in this case created by Rosalind’s decision to dress up as a boy in order to protect herself and Celia. Disguising themselves as brother and sister, and bringing the court fool Touchstone (played by Dinh Q. Doan) along, the girls find a new home amongst poor shepherds in the Forest of Arden not far from Rosalind’s father.
Coincidentally, Orlando has also found himself in the Forest, and makes the acquaintance of Rosalind, believing her to be Ganymede, the young shepherd she is pretending to be. The two strike up a friendship, allowing Rosalind to discover just how true Orlando’s love is for the lady he remembers so fondly.
As You Like It boasts one of Shakespeare’s most jarringly random and convenient plot endings, but as in so many of Shakespeare’s plays, it is on the journey that the truth can be discovered, not at the destination. The quick wrap-up is an added amusement, not a disappointment. Shakespeare had already made his point. Rosalind and Orlando ultimately learn the virtues of trust and faith, a lesson that will help make the new world that they create together better than the ones they have left behind.
Peter Dobbins’ decision to set his production of As You Like It in the Spanish colonies of the New World is a curious one, but the choice provides a unique and welcome spin to the usual forest setting. The frequent mentions of the “desert place” that the characters find themselves in allow the audience members to envision a different type of solitary existence, one of wide-open spaces instead of claustrophobic shelter.
The costume and sound design choices (created by Laura Tabor Bacon and David A. Thomas respectively) reflect a mixture of old world Elizabethan familiarity and new world Mexican flavor, which can distract, but ultimately illustrate the physical and spiritual journey that Orlando, Rosalind, and indeed every character makes throughout the show: a journey from a life that was comfortable but constricting to a new one that is liberating and full of possibility.
The Storm Theatre’s basement space of The Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame is once again transformed by Ken Larson’s simple set. The audience sits on two sides of the long runway style stage, with the Forest of Arden at one end and the architecture of the court at the other. This design provides the audience with a physical reminder of the two worlds the characters are trapped between.
Most of the cast handles the complexity of Shakespeare’s language deftly, allowing the quick wit of the verse to be easily followed. It is an unfortunate reality that in many contemporary Shakespeare productions, little attention is paid to making sure the actors actually know what they are saying. A general understanding of the emotional overtones of any given speech is thought to be sufficient, which lessens the entire impact of the play. This is not the case at all with Storm’s production, and the care obviously taken with the language during rehearsal pays off immensely.
Mauricio Salgado brings the perfect blend of angst-filled scrappiness and love-sick poetry to Orlando. Erin Beinard’s Rosalind is wistful and brave, and appealingly girly despite her boyish disguise. Laura Bozzone’s Celia is a little heavy handed on the earnestness early in the play, but her portrayal mellows alongside her character into a spirited warmth and charm as the story progresses. Dinh Q. Doan’s Touchstone blasts through the Fool’s wisdom at lightning speed, occasionally giving the audience whiplash; but his physical commitment to the character’s clowning is impeccable.
Joe Danbusky blithely switches between the harsh ambition and jealousy of Duke Frederick and the patient acceptance and serenity of Duke Senior with complete commitment to each character. Peter Dobbins’s portrayal of Jacques, the melancholy introspective attendant of Duke Senior, fills his character with an intriguing blend of pathos and dry humor, and every character that Gregory Couba touches sparkles with spot on comedic timing and mirth.
As a whole, the Storm Theatre’s production of As You Like It is an enjoyable and satisfying theatrical experience. Dobbins wisely left out the theatrical tricks and frills that many directors tack on to Shakespeare to “keep it relevant,” allowing a simple and straightforward interpretation of the play. The enthusiasm and enjoyment of the cast is infectious, hooking the audience from the beginning.
In one of the play’s most beloved passages, the character of Jacques maintains that “all the world is a stage.” This may be true, but many stages do not create worlds worth inhabiting. The Storm Theatre and Blackfriar’s Reparatory Company (with a little help from Shakespeare, of course) have conjured up a delightful world worth a visit where faith, hope and love reign, all governed by a great deal of wit.
Monica R. Weigel is a teaching artist and director in New York City. She holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Theatre from New York University’s Steinhardt School.