Lost in the Forest of Arden

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. 

Fair Rosalind

Rosalind is always better when she is disguised as Ganymede. The recent closing night of APT’s production of As You Like It proved it once again as Melisa Pereyra’s ease and charm stretched all the way through the pouring rain to reach even the ushers seated in the last row.

I love this play. It is not the I die, you die, we all die experience of Hamlet or other of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Instead, this play has bad poetry plucked from trees; banter between fools, shepherds, and melancholy philosophers; beautiful language, songs, and famous lines; a cross-dressing heroine; and a convenient wrap-up at the end.

When Rosalind sheds her feminine garb and appears as Ganymede, she/he just has so much damn fun. Ganymede is all experiment and exploration. He tests and prods, feeling what is possible. He is the very force of creation; he is the edge, the gray area, the liminal place where inventiveness resides. But he is, at the same time, Rosalind. It is really she (in disguise) who is the explorer, the mad scientist, the inventor, the instigator. And I love her for it.

The Path
Carol Pylant, The Path (oil on aluminum)

As You Like It rests easily in works by the Wisconsin and Chicago-area painter, Carol Pylant. Her courtyards are so still, populated only occasionally by stray dogs or peacocks. The spaces are quiet, with stone flooring and archways, plastered walls, signs of age but of indeterminate, and thus suspended, time. But these spaces, so beautifully rendered in mind-boggling detail, open onto disparate landscapes of green forests and wooded paths, sunlight and trees, overgrown but inviting. Rosalind waits against the stone wall in the spare courtyard, but Ganymede runs off into the distant woods, his feet nimble among the roots and uneven paths.

Artigas Spring
Carol Pylant, Artigas Spring (oil on linen)

The boundary between the formal and the unkempt, the ordered and the wild, the confined and the free, is so clearly represented in this work but cannot be neatly comprehended. The paintings are unsettling because of this very disconnect: the spaces don’t match. The constructed courtyards that open to unstructured wilderness are too close, too accessible. In their very realism the paintings proclaim their place in the imaginary, as when the audience lets itself believe that Rosalind could ever be taken as Ganymede. The painting is its own referent; the play’s the thing.

Before the End
Carol Pylant, Before the End (oil on aluminum)

But sound is also the thing, especially when it’s Jason Moran playing piano at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. There’s piano, and then there are the sounds that Mr. Moran creates. The rumbling, so quiet at first, building slowly until it fills my head, forcing out any other thought, requiring, demanding, clear, sole focus on the sound itself. Sound that split the world of piano into two: what I had known before, and what I understood after. The former was the constructed world, the courtyard where Rosalind sits attired in her courtly manners, suspended in time, waiting. The latter is possibility: the overgrown, tangled woods where Ganymede freely uncovers love of all kinds.

20180930_205602
Jason Moran: Celebrating Willie Pickens & Muhal Richard Abrams. Logan Center Performance Hall, September 30, 2018.

Soothing balm for difficult days? Maybe, but the music, the paintings, and the play all embody the quintessential dichotomy of court and green world, the opposition between constrained manner and unfettered potential. Luckily for viewers and listeners, there is a space where characters shed expected behaviors and take on new identities, where music is released into sound, where buildings open into wilderness, offering up a celebration of creativity and imagination, the joy of discovery, the release of constraints, and the pleasure of making something new.

(Update: Carol Pylant’s work will be featured in an exhibition during spring 2019 at Gallery Victor Armendariz in Chicago. A publication, Carol Pylant: Portal Paintings, 2009-2019, will accompany the show, featuring essays by me and Buzz SpectorDetails will be shared about the catalogue and the exhibition as soon as they are available!).