Lost in the Forest of Arden

Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Disrupting gender expectations would seem to be an easy task for a play like As You Like It. Reveling in the language of love and flirtation, the action covers secret identities, power grabs, bold set-ups, and dramatic reveals. There is much to be explored here: women disguised as men, courtly denizens presenting as shepherds, conflicted rulers and heirs, strong female bonds, fights, music, poetry, and a forest where exiles leave behind the demands of their former lives.

This year’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival included all of these things, but also offered an expanded interpretation of many roles. The director, Rosa Joshi, has described her interest in the play as centered around the hopefulness it provides in dark times.

With the Forest of Arden as a place of transformation through female leadership, Joshi sees the character of Rosalind as finding her true self through her performance of gender. Describing herself as “text-driven,” by honoring the text but approaching the play with a healthy dose of irreverence, Joshi mentions in an online interview that she is interested in “losing some of the preciousness” in her approach to classical texts. 

I am a fan of approachable Shakespeare. American Players Theater, among others, have been digging into this territory for many years. Unfortunately for the production in Ashland, the “preciousness” is not only lost, but the play is gutted with poorly chopped text, making for awkward passages and non-sensical sequences. An introductory chorus has been inserted to provide background from deleted scenes, and conversations have been cut short or omitted altogether. 

Especially disorienting was the displacement of a key text from relatively early in the play to the conclusion of the performance. Despite a visually stunning presentation, the new placement strips “All the world’s a stage…” of its context and meaning. Although the famous words were beautifully delivered in this production by a group of women, the text is ascribed to a male character. Relocating this passage robbed Rosalind, the main female character, of the play’s closing entreaty, one of the few epilogues in Shakespeare’s plays that is delivered by a woman. This was a confusing choice for a director who is interested in expanding women’s roles in theater.

The casting was fun–finally introducing gay love!–but other than a couple of standout performances, the changes did not add any nuance to the story. Rachel Crowl as Duke Senior was a highlight, presenting a leader who, with grace and generosity, deftly anchored the exiles of the forest. Kate Hurster glowed as Celia, echoing a similar sincerity and generous spirit. Sadly, other characters were difficult to appreciate. The text was so disjointed that many roles were robbed of the words and interactions that usually provide complexity and subtlety for actors to mine. Jaques felt out of context without the lengthy banter around the character’s melancholy state, and Rosalind–a great character with much charismatic potential–was all boldness and bluster, with little variation. As Taylor Leigh Ciambra has described elsewhere, all of the excitement about a gender-bending approach is lost when the production still ends with straight weddings, resolving itself as “another story for the cis/hetero canon.”

I agree with David Templeton that the director’s alterations were “actually working against Shakespeare’s giddy simplicity.” This is a play with a frothy storyline, but it is ripe below the surface, filled with gorgeous language and stinging wit. Some of the pleasure was present in this production, but most was sadly tossed off as sarcasm or edited into oblivion.

Was this a more accessible version, less “precious,” easier to understand for viewers who are new to Shakespeare? Maybe, and I hope seeing it will embolden these fresh viewers to try out another. But I adore this play, and this production put me to sleep. Despite the director’s intentions–including some really interesting ideas about transformational space, female leadership, and power–the end result was a playful romp, sans bite, sans focus, sans beautiful language, sans interest. 

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