Into the Woods

AYLI

As we walked into As You Like It, our last play of the week, at the Festival Theater, we were given a cloth bag with a tree branch, a love poem hand-written by a seventh-grader, a clothes pin, and a blue fan, and we found Robin Hutton already on stage, in jeans and a vest and long coat, holding court.  “Welcome to Newfoundland,” she said to the puzzled Californians in the front row.  She sipped on her drink.  “Have you got your tree branches, now? . . . Show us your bush . . . You, over there, are you going to sing for us? . . . Hello, balcony . . .  I hope you’ve got those stars . . . We’re going to have a kitchen party here.”   Eventually, she introduced herself as Hymen, the goddess of marriage (who indeed appears at the close of As You Like It, to bless the various “country copulatives”), cued the band (guitar, fiddle, accordion, drum), brought out the cast and called a lively traditional dance, “Running the Goat”: “Circle to the left . . . now to the right . . . swing your partner . . . first couple, now, promenade.”

That was just the first fifteen minutes.  This production of As You Like It was set in 1980s Newfoundland, which the director, Jillian Keiley, characterizes as “a dance-together culture,” in which “art is not to be examined or observed but to be experienced by all of us, together in a circle.”  The atmosphere throughout was raucous and participatory.  When Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone fled to the forest, we all waved our branches, and they fought their way down a row, carrying their luggage, pushing greenery out of the way.  We clipped our poems onto branches for the characters to pluck off and read; we waved our blue fans in unison for the seaside scenes; the balcony’s stars illuminated the night; characters roasted marshmallows on coals held by the audience, plucked carrots from audience members’ hands, and shot at rabbits passed along the rows.  Hymen continued to address us directly, cueing our props and commenting on the various couples falling in love–“Look, here’s couple number one”—and telling us it was “time go have a pee” at intermission. Other characters occasionally encouraged our responses directly, too—for example, in the wrestling scene in Act I, where musclebound Charles played the heel and we all cheered skinny, long-haired Orlando as he said, “You mean to mock me after; you should not have mock’d me before,” slipping on his checkered headband.   The fight was pure WWE, full of ostentatiously fake blows and exaggerated reactions.  Lisa said the whole thing was like a London panto, joyous and vulgar and self-aware, and that seemed about right to me.

Somehow, miraculously, in the midst of all this, a smart and funny play broke out, too.   As You Like It is one of my favorites of the comedies, because of its playful intelligence, its heroine, and its literary self-consciousness.   The characters go off to the forest and adopt conventional attitudes—pastoral idealism, melancholy, romantic love, carnal desire, sophisticated court irony—and test them against one another.  The play has a relaxed, discursive feel: characters meet, talk, try out various tropes and postures, move on.  The spirit of parody and mockery is everywhere.  We encounter an actual lovesick shepherd (at our performance, the audience tinkled sheep bells on his arrival) and his scornful mistress, who makes fun of the idea that her unkind looks are killing him:

Now I do frown on thee with all my heart,
And if mine eyes can wound, then let them kill thee.
Now counterfeit to swound; why, now fall down . . .

After hearing Orlando’s conventional Petrarchan verses about Rosalind (“Let no face be kept in mind/But the fair of Rosalind”), Touchstone says, “I’ll rhyme you so eight years together, dinners and suppers and sleeping hours excepted”:

If a hart do lack a hind,
Let him seek out Rosalind.
If the cat will after kind,
So be sure will Rosalind . . .

“’Tis good to be sad and say nothing,” says the melancholy Jaques.  “Why then,” Rosalind replies, “’tis good to be a post.”  Rosalind, brilliant and generous, one of Shakespeare’s greatest female characters, is at the center of all of this comic play, testing Orlando’s love in a boy’s disguise—taking him to husband school, as one of my students said last spring.   In the end, court society recreates itself, transformed and renewed: Hymen blesses all of the couples; the evil repent; the exiled and usurped are restored.

As it turns out, this play adapted itself to 1980s Newfoundland quite easily.  The forest characters wore plaid shirts and stocking hats, split wood and went fishing; the songs (there is a lot of singing in this forest) were accompanied by fiddle and accordion and had you tapping your feet; the court world was populated by men in white linen suits and women with big hair, holding Rubik’s cubes and gigantic portable phones.  (In general, this all reminded me of the first Die Hard film, which came out in 1988, and which my family watches every Christmas.)  I kept looking for Donald Trump in the history plays, but he was actually here, as Duke Frederick, a coarse bully with blow-dried blond hair, a model on his arm, barking orders and making threats.  It was a relief to move from his world to the Newfoundland forest and coast, where the Duke’s sister, Duchess Senior, and her friends were singing, reading, and talking, in a more democratic and congenial environment, and where we might find a disheveled lover greeting his mistress with flowers and fresh-caught fish.  The open, unpretentious, participatory spirit of this imagined Newfoundland gave the play its comic and regenerative force and infected the entire production, audience and all, with its joyous energy.

The cast was very strong, again.  I can’t say enough about how consistently good the acting was, all week long, with a largely different group each night.  Petrina Bromley’s Rosalind was lovestruck and forceful by turns, and she was entirely convincing as a boy, with her baggy jeans, loose white shirt and pencil-thin moustache.  Her epilogue—a pastiche of Shakespearean texts—was a small tour de force.  Cyrus Lane, who had excelled in a comic turn as the Porter in Macbeth the night before, was an appropriately goofy and engaging Orlando.  But I thought Trish Lindström stole every scene she was in as Celia, whom she played as a sort of Valley Girl, struggling through the forest with pink sunglasses and a hatbox.  I would have paid money just to watch her split wood—she ended up trying to sharpen the axe with her nail file–or to watch her dance with excitement as she told Rosalind that Orlando was in the forest.   Seana McKenna also gave Jaques, the melancholy outsider, unusual dignity and grace; her delivery of the “Seven Ages of Man” speech was mesmerizing.  (This was, with Brigit Wilson’s Duchess Senior, one of two traditionally male roles played brilliantly by women here.)

Jaques leaves the happy scene just before the end, because she knows what is coming.  “I am for other than for dancing measures,” she says, sadly, on her way to an “abandon’d cave”—and there was certainly plenty of dancing at the Festival Theater after she left, including members of the audience who had been prepared before the show and joined the cast on stage.  “Now, thread the needle,” Hymen said; the line of dancers snaked through an arch made by two of their number; we stamped our feet and clapped.  It was a great way to end the week.

—Dan  Gunn

 

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