‘As You Like It’ goes slumming at Cal Shakes

Plays by William Shakespeare are so timeless that they’re often updated to make them even more appealing to modern audiences.

For example, some years ago, a San Francisco production of “The Taming of the Shrew” was set in the Wild West and worked quite well.

California Shakespeare Theater’s attempt at updating “As You Like It” is not so successful. It’s fine in the early scenes at court. The characters wear modern costumes by Melissa Torchia on an attractive vine-covered set by Nina Ball (lighting by Masha Tsimring). Classical music adds to the pleasant atmosphere in Sharath Patel’s sound design.

However, when several characters flee for safety to the Forest of Arden, they wind up in a dilapidated, abandoned industrial warehouse with no hint of a forest. It doesn’t work. Nor does a rap song with incomprehensible lyrics by Everett Elton Bradman, music director and composer.

On the plus side in this production directed by Desdemona Chiang, the acting overall is good. Especially noteworthy are performances by two Bay Area theater veterans. James Carpenter does double duty as the usurping Duke Frederick and as his exiled older brother, the kindly Duke Senior. Warren David Keith plays Adam, faithful old servant to young Orlando (Patrick Russell), and Touchstone, the fool who accompanies Duke Frederick’s niece Rosalind (Jessika D. Williams) and daughter Celia (Maryssa Wanlass) on their flight to the forest.

Craig Marker does well as Orlando’s cruel older brother, Oliver, and takes on some lesser roles.

Director Chiang misfires with Jomar Tagatac, who’s too hyper as the supposedly melancholy Jacques in Duke Senior’s entourage. He also plays Charles, the wrestler who’s defeated by Orlando in a rah-rah scene.

Another miscue comes near the end when Rosalind, who has been pretending she’s a young man named Ganymede, reveals herself as a woman to Orlando, whose love she returns. Instead of emerging in a feminine outfit, though, she merely removes her hat. Thus the scene’s usual magic and wonder are lost.

The cast’s singing of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” embodies the message that this production is trying to achieve.

Then the message becomes trite in Rosalind’s epilogue. She says, “I charge you, O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of this play as please you.”

Next she says much the same to the men and their love for women. After each mention of love for the opposite sex, other actors distract from Shakespeare’s lines with words denoting other sexual identities.

Thus the production comes across as good intentions gone wrong, negating many of its positive qualities, especially most of the acting.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, it will continue through June 18 at the outdoor Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Way (off Hwy. 24),  Orinda. For tickets and information, call (510) 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

 

  1. john ryan
    john ryan06-04-2017

    This review is merely an admission of your curmudgeonly preconceptions: This play became alive and newly relevant for me because it re-imagined this wonderful piece for the post-modern world without falling into abstraction. The urban setting works as the forest because it is both dangerous and something you can hide in. This is not the bucolic lush faerie inhabited magical forest of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. It is a metaphorical place and one I too was leery of when I heard it previewed in the talk in the grove prior to the curtain, This twist demonstrated a deep resonance with the play’s themes that make Shakespeare relevant today. The casting was perfect, the dialogue crackled, I loved it.

  2. Terry
    Terry06-04-2017

    Actually, I don’t believe the rap song was written by the composer; I’m pretty sure that was “Freedom” by Rage Against the Machine.