Theater Review: A Feminist Reponse to Shakespeare in the Park's "As You Like It"

A rustic revelry is indeed taking place at the Delacorte Theater, where the first play featured in this year’s Shakespeare in the Park is in performances. This bouyant production of As You Like It, directed by Daniel Sullivan, is a light-hearted, entertaining, lush and romantic play with a top-notch cast and practically perfect set.

As You Like It is considered by many to be one of Shakespeare’s lesser-quality plays due to its light-hearted tone. George Bernard Shaw frequently expressed his opinion that Shakespeare wrote the pastoral comedy as nothing more than a crowdpleaser, signalling his own middling opinion of the work by calling it As You Like It – as if he himself did not agree. Comparisons to other works by the Bard aside, this production of As You Like It is an enchanting, delightful evening at the theater that entertains nonstop and inspires some interesting thoughts about the battle of the sexes.

A love story set amidst turbulent political unrest, As You Like It follows Orlando (David Furr), the younger brother of Oliver (Andrew Hovelson), who has been disinherited from his family’s fortune. He falls in love at first sight with Rosalind, the daughter of the exiled Duke, whose brother usurped his throne. When she is also exiled by her uncle, she flees to the woods to find her father, accompanied by her cousin Celia and Touchstone, the court jester (contentedly played by Oliver Platt in a scene-stealing performance). The escape is made with Rosalind disguised as a man and Celia as a peasant. Orlando also flees to the woods for safety, joined by the steadfastly loyal servant Adam. Free from the restraints of society, mischief and romance, as well as danger, abound for all of these characters in the forest of Arden.

Free from society and surrounded by nature, many social restraints are tossed aside and any number of flirtations and frivolity unfold. Rosalind, disguised as the man Ganymed, discovers Orlando pining for her and leaving poems to her pinned on the trees of the forest. She then offers to counsel Orlando in love as a way to secretly test his devotion to her. Touchstone courts the shepardess Audrey (Donna Lynne Champlin) but is forced to marry her first. Phoebe (Sisannah Flood) is constantly courted by the dumbly devoted Silvius (Will Rogers), but upon meeting Ganymed she quickly becomes infatuated with him. While romances run wild, Orlando befriends Rosalind’s father, the Duke, (Andre Braugher) and the melancholy Duke (Stephen Spinella, in an outstanding performance). All conflicts, secret identities and romantic entanglements are eventually resolved, but it is the journey to get there that is so fulfilling.

This production of As You Like It is a stellar example of how strongly the setting of a show can enhance its impact. Watching the play in the Delacorte Theater, outside in Central Park, only enhances its the almost magical quality of the script. John Lee Beaty’s sets and Natasha Katz’s lighting seem to have taken root in the woods rather than being built there. and the top-notch performances by the cast are given in a natural, organic style.

As Rosalind, Lily Rabe combines her character’s maturity and childishness into an endearing young woman. Her stalwart courage upon being exiled by her uncle is believable, as are her girlish giggles when speaking of Orlando’s charms. Renee Elise Goldsberry is an enjoyable Celia; she spends much of the second act responding visually to Rosalind’s antics and she seems to be having a very fine time doing so. David Furr’s Orlando is a passionate young lover whose outrage at being disinherited is just as fervent as his admiration for Rosalind. Andre Braugher gives a measured, cheerful performance as Duke Senior, making the most of being exiled into the woods while Andrew Hovelson gives a strong and measured performance as the malicious, and then repentant Oliver; as the ardent Silvius, Will Rogers is extremely entertaining. But the standout performance of the evening is given by Stephen Spinella, as the self-proclaimed melancholy Jacques. Speaking languidly, masking some of his sadness with snide humor, Spinella is both moving and entertaining to watch. His delivery of the famous, “All the world’s a stage” speech, spoken quietly while sitting by an open campfire, is nothing short of beautiful. To further enhance the production’s charms, a live band playing bluegrass music is featured in many scenes.

While watching As You Like It, I found myself raising my eyebrows frequently and reminding myself how long ago the play had been written. It is an understatement to say the play paints a complicated portrait of women – both how they were treated and how they treat others. While Rosalind’s brave actions and Celia’s loyalty are both admirable, I was surprised by Rosalind’s treatment of Phoebe while rebuffing her attentions as Ganymed. After stating she is not interested, she tells her, “Sow when you can. You are not for all markets,” and then tricks her into marrying Silvius. Rosalind insults Phoebe and then forces her to marry a man she does not love, essentially telling her, “He loves you so you should love him, because not many other men will love you.”

Another aspect of Rosalind’s character that I found surprising and troublesome was her portrayal of women while pretending to be Ganymed. While “pretending” to be a woman, she depicts them as fickle, unfaithful, illogical and unreliable. Her friendship with Celia, who voluntarily went into exile with her, should have proven her to be mistaken in that regard.

For a woman of that time and place, Rosalind must have been perceived as an empowered woman, but as a woman of the 21st century, I beg to differ on that opinion. Rosalind gets what she wants, but only by insulting and degrading her own gender. Celia chastises her for this, but it has little effect on her. Rather than viewing this as a reflection of Rosalind, however, I view this is a reflection of society at that time. Could a woman only get what she wants by pretending to be a man and insulting women in the process? Rosalind seems to have an idea of her lot in life; in the beginning of the show she says, when speaking of Fortune, “her benefits are mightily misplaced: and the bountiful blind woman doth most mistake in her gifts to women.”

Of all the women onstage, the happiest seemed to be Audrey, a happily uneducated, bluntly sexual woman who, despite her vocal admissions of lust, refused to sleep with Touchstone until they were married. She played her cards as she could, but her hand was very limited.

One might say I am thinking too much and As You Like It  is a comedy. Why do I have to analyze the gender roles of a light-hearted, pastoral comedy? Why can’t I just enjoy the romance and beauty of Shakespeare’s words and this excellent production? In response, I quote Rosalind, however tongue-in-cheek the words may be: “I am a woman. When I think, I must speak!”

Carey Purcell

www.CareyPurcell.com

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