Monday, May 14, 2012

Shakespeare notebook: As You Like It

Elisabeth Ahrens, center, lets her hair down as Rosalind
in the all-female Queen's Company's As You Like It
As You Like It
The Queen's Company at Walkerspace
written by William Shakespeare
directed by Rebecca Patterson

A pair of stumps and a tree in silhouette could set the stage for half a dozen of Shakespeare's plays. So it's the action—and not an elaborate, conceptual design—that defines Rebecca Patterson's all-female production of As You Like It. Each time someone leaves the dark, paranoid court for the Forest of Arden, their violent impulses dissolve. The constant stream of converts lends a harmonious atmosphere to the sylvan utopia of bumpkins and exiles. Folks have time to kill in this forest, and they spend it debating the nature of the world while noting the process of time. Patterson has edited the script, minimizing its raucous clowning and cutting a difficult, equivocal hunting scene. Her stripped approach suits AYLI well, bringing out its philosophical spirit as well as a communal theme.

Patterson balances her abstract design with a realistic style of performance. Her actors speak the verse as dialogue, not poetry, which stifles any impulse to overact. As Rosalind, Elisabeth Ahrens delights in the ardor of her partner Orlando but can't help teasing him for his exuberance. Opposite her, Virginia Baeta is so passionate about love that it's no surprise he doesn't see his paramour is right there disguised as a boy. Unfortunately, the duo don't have enough chemistry to kindle their love-play into flames. As for the cast as a whole, they play off each other comfortably, and their enthusiasm for playing Shakespeare—and not just the female roles—makes up for any rough skill. Rather than overplaying their parts, they let the dialogue enhance their simple characterizations. Just as the set could serve for Shakespearean dramas, the company could easily mount a full repertory of classic English comedies.

No surprise, then, that the one major flaw in AYLI involves specificity. Patterson and designer Anna Licavita costume the court as if it were the corrupt government in a Reagan-era banana dictatorship. Like most attempts to reset Shakespeare's plays in another time and place, '80s Latin America fits uncomfortably around this play. The Miami Vice outfits, floofy cupcake nighties, and aviator sunglasses are funny but add nothing that the actors and script haven't already shown us.

Much better are beats in the second half when the action pauses for characters to rock out to '80s pop music. The Queen's Company loves using this entertaining, idiosyncratic device to express passionate, inexpressible moments like “love at first sight.” The quirky joy of these moments epitomizes the company's approach to their mission. The company casts only actresses in classic plays, but a political agenda is subtextual and secondary. Their motivation, rather, seems to be more artistic: why shouldn't women play these great roles? The programming sticks to comedies, by Shakespeare and others, plays which rarely depict sexual activity except in the most abstract way. That fact, plus the tropes of disguise and rebellion against parents, the exceptional fake beards, and the earnest cheese of those musical interludes all give their work the undertone of a romantic fantasy enacted by girls at a pajama party.