In As You Like It at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival:
Before they are exiled: Miriam A. Laube as Rosalind, Julie
Oda as Celia and Brad Whitmore, the bad Duke who deposed his brother--
one of two pairs of brothers (Orlando and Oliver being the
other) at odds in the beginning, but reconciled in the Forest.
These mostly offstage and far-fetched reconciliations are
signaled early when one of these brothers admits that to do
violence on a brother is "unnatural." A key moment I'd
missed until this production.
There’s been a steady stream of new film interpretations, and the burgeoning Shakespeare industry inspired a wonderful TV series from Canada, “Sling and Arrows.” Shakespeare still fascinates audiences, and despite the perils of producing his plays, directors and actors continue to take on the challenge because there is so much to learn and experience.
Of our established community and college theatres here, only North Coast Repertory Company regularly produces Shakespeare, a commitment not only admirable in itself, but valuable to the entire local theatre community. I was disappointed to see that mine was the only review of their recent Henry IV Part 1. Without broader and deeper dialogue, we’re missing a continuing opportunity that these great plays and their rich theatrical history provide.
We are most fortunate to be only hours from one of the few theatres on the continent to regularly offer world class productions of Shakespeare. At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival right now there’s a production of one of the Bard’s best: As You Like It.
Moving Shakespeare’s plays to different places and historical periods has become a fashion, with mixed results. It works when it illuminates the play, and it’s even better if both play and the era illuminate each other. The OSF production (directed by J.R. Sullivan) is set in early 1930s America, or more precisely, in the version we know from Hollywood movies. Those movie images quickly communicate important elements like power relationships—when Orlando (the younger son of a deceased nobleman) is working on a loading dock, and his gangster-like boss is his older brother, Oliver, we get it immediately.
This theatricality, together with the energy it engenders on stage, emphasizes clarity, an OSF hallmark, further encouraged by this production’s participation in a National Endowment of the Arts initiative called “Shakespeare for a New Generation.” The theatre was filled with responsive young people when we saw it. They were even laughing at 400 year old jokes.
You know the story: Orlando and Rosalind fall for each other, both are exiled from the court to the Forest of Arden by the Evil Duke, where they find the Good Duke and each other. Disguised as a boy, Rosalind tutors the clueless Orlando on how to win his lady. In the enchanted wild, order is eventually restored, brothers are reconciled with brothers, and just about everybody gets married.
When I saw this play at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, I was impressed by the fierce energy of Monica Bell as Rosalind. (Julie Oda, who played the country girl Audrey in that production, plays Rosalind’s companion Celia at OSF.)
At OSF, Miriam Laube had lots of energy, but her portrayal was edgier, more ambiguous. She played to the audience maybe a bit too much, but what impressed me most was that she often seemed to be doing what Rosalind was doing: improvising, making it up as she goes along.
The 1930s “concept” didn’t often impinge on the integrity of the scenes or the acting and especially the text. Though there was no obvious new interpretation, I heard lines echo with each other in ways I hadn’t heard before.
Even though the plot and much of the action can seem silly, this is a deceptively profound play. The character who gets no respect from play analysts is Orlando. Because Rosalind drives much of the action, he is dismissed as a somewhat dim hero.
Yet the play begins with his problem: not that his brother has robbed him of his monetary inheritance, but of his birthright of nobility. “You have trained me like a peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentlemanlike qualities.”
This is where the theme of the court (or the city) versus nature (or the country) begins, and the resolution of it in the Forest of Arden is Orlando’s education. The court is courtly, the country is rude—until he learns that “gentleness” or civility (a word that comes from the same root as “city”) is also natural.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays dramatize the evil that humans do, almost always in the “artificial” world of courts and nations. In Arden, it is brotherly love as well as sexual love that is natural in the wild. The natural is revealed through artifice—song, jest, thought, Rosalind’s playacting and above all, imagination. Seeing through the eyes of others, imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes, is the beginning of empathy, and the beginning of humanity. In this odd way, As You Like It is a kind of key to all of Shakespeare’s work, and perhaps to more than that.