William Shakespeare’s As You Like It is one of the most popular comedies ever. It also contains perhaps the most beloved crossgender character in theater history: young Rosalind. Her father, known as Duke Senior, has been unjustly exiled to the Forest of Arden by her usurping uncle, Duke Frederick. To exacerbate things, Frederick’s daughter, Celia, aside from being Rosalind’s cousin, is like a sister. Their bond is so strong it overrides the boorishness of the paternalistic usurper.
Frederick’s court, as a matter of course, draws the noble and the ambitious. There the youthful Orlando, born of noble blood, confronts his older brother Oliver for withholding his portion of their inheritance from their deceased knighted father. The self-obsessed Oliver has ingratiated himself to Frederick, who had been a comrade of his dead father, to the unprincipled exclusion of his little brother. In what is an utterly immoral set-up by Oliver at the ever-dynamic court, Orlando is made to wrestle a far more powerful opponent in a match that could likely seriously injure if not kill him. During the course of the scene, when Orlando’s eyes and Rosalind’s happen to meet, a soulmate connection is made! Love at first sight.
Unfortunately, love is delayed. Rosalind is soon banished because of the paranoid Frederick. Like her father, she too flees to the forest. However, Celia, defiant of her father’s abuse of power, accompanies her bosom gal pal. Radiating out of these core relationships are various other romances of the “lesser born” that have their own progressions throughout. This underscores the Achilles’ heel of so many As You Like It productions in which these less central relationships are not fully realized while the core romance between Rosalind and Orlando gets the unbalanced attention of the director.
Happily, this is not the case at the Guthrie Theater where director Lavina Jadhwani has scrupulously sculpted all of these relationships with superb clarity so that each and every scene stands out distinctively. Moreover, this production adds a ripple to this by the casting of a woman, a delightful Sarah Agnew, in the role of one of these romancers, Touchstone the clown, traditionally played by a man. Note as well that in Shakespeare’s time, only males were allowed to act on stage and females were not. Therefore, all female roles were portrayed by males.
Meghan Kreidler as Rosalind not only surpasses Patti LuPone who played the role in Liviu Ciulei’s flawed 1982 Guthrie production, but Kreidler is piercingly savvy to the power and influence she has regarding the other relationships. This is a pivotal reason why Rosalind is widely considered to be one of world literature’s most powerfully intelligent female characters. Kreidler dons the role’s masculine visage named Ganymede, hence giving subversive scope to Rosalind’s intuitive sense of bringing unwitting soul mates together who would otherwise have not connected. Kreidler portrays this brilliantly and it’s among the finest Rosalinds I’ve ever seen in 40 years of having encountered several productions of this comedy.
In concordance, Jesse Bhamrah brings endearingly macho impetuosity to Orlando. It’s a different choice than Val Kilmer’s when he played opposite LuPone in 1982. To his credit, Kilmer brought vulnerability and princely splendor to the role that served the play well, despite his co-actress’s scenery chewing.
However, Bhamrah’s is more a realistic, if not, modern, take on the fact that Orlando wrestles (literally and figuratively) with resentment and deep-seated insecurities. He realizes he should have received a noble’s formative training and refinement but was cheated out of it. The terrific Bhamrah’s touching performance apprehends this, as his Orlando’s rough-around-the-edges personality is mysteriously enchanted by the male persona of Ganymede that has yet to be revealed to him as the actual woman whose soul mate eyes he met at the wrestling match. We have the gut feeling that he and Rosalind would complement one another’s differences ideally if only her masculine illusion were dropped. We want them to reach each other but Rosalind must employ crossdressing to fulfill her mission. A conceit that results in hilarious comedic tension, and reminds us of the fluidity of desire.
Another remarkable component of Jadhwani’s guidance is Luis Vega’s perceptive portrayal as Oliver, Orlando’s brother. Again, this is a role that is often swallowed up in lesser productions, but the wonderful Vega reveals a young man’s inner journey from immature egocentrism to caring manhood wherein he realizes the error of his ways. What’s too often a throwaway role is given satisfying full measure. He is well matched with Andrea San Miguel’s charmingly kinetic Celia. She and Kreidler also create a sparkling chemistry of close female friendship throughout.
Another role traditionally played by a male, here played by a female, is Angela Timberman’s marvelously sardonic take on the cynical elder, Jaques, who delivers the play’s most iconic speech, The Seven Ages of Man (“All the world’s a stage”). The melancholy Jaques is exiled for being a compatriot of Duke Senior. Here’s a Shakespearean example of despair becoming so much in alignment with one’s personal character, so that for all his sad insights, Jaques doesn’t see the light. But if you watch Timberman in certain moments, you’ll see glimpses of optimism sometimes flickering from her eyes.
Though Chris Thorn capably plays both Dukes—the malevolent Frederick and the sympathetic Senior—the double casting of one actor in both roles blurs the significant differences between the two. A Guthrie veteran like Bill McCallum or Stephen Yoakam would have worked well in one of the Duke roles to play in contrast to Thorn, whose take on Frederick’s negativity should be noted is spot on.
The issue of manly honor pervades As You Like It. Both Dukes and both brothers illustrate that. Aaron Preusse has directed the wrestling scene incorporating mixed martial arts to entertaining effect with a vibrantly imposing turn by a tattoed Brandon Dahlquist as Charles, Orlando’s formidable opponent. Nonetheless, Charles actually struggles internally with the unfairness of being the superior fighter over a young smaller man whose skills are clearly, if not lethally, inferior. To be sure, there is considerable masculine reflection built into As You Like It. A reminder that western thought is filled with such reflection about thorny issues of masculinity. And such issues actively pulsate throughout Shakespeare.
Christiana Clark evokes a dreamy vision as Hymen the god of marriage, in this version played as the “goddess of marriage” all-knowing and pregnant. The actress is resplendently costumed by Ilona Somogyi, whose eclectic approach to dressing the characters suits the contemporary elements of Jadhwani’s concept fetchingly. Clark is also rustically appealing in the male role of Corin the shepherd.
As You Like It
Through Mar. 17
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis