As You Like It | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

As You Like It 

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Bailiwick Repertory

Love is terribly hazardous. It ought to be federally regulated, like any other activity that affects the health and well-being of citizens.

Think about it: You throw yourself into a marketplace that deals in beauty, social status, and that ephemeral commodity known as personality. You offer the very essence of your being for the critical appraisal of people you desperately want to please.

And since people come into the marketplace with vastly different desires and qualifications, the chances of a mutually satisfying trade are remote. One of the two parties is bound to get a better deal.

In such a system, the chances for humiliation and abuse are enormous. People are devastated every day, and yet there are no laws to govern this chaos. It's as though nitroglycerine were available at any drugstore, to anyone, even though people were killed and maimed every day by accidental explosions.

As You Like It can be viewed as a guide to what can go wrong in the marketplace of romance. The play consists of couples gamboling through the Forest of Arden, where romance hangs in the air like a heavy mist.

But Shakespeare is no sentimentalist. He is not offering some sugar-coated celebration of romantic love. On the contrary, he offers a dissenting viewpoint--instead of lamenting the failure of real life to equal romantic ideals, he makes gentle fun of the romantic ideals for not coinciding with real life. The ending is happy, at least for those characters who successfully negotiate their way into conjugal bliss, but there's a healthy dose of vanity, rejection, and fickle behavior thrown in to keep the accounts balanced.

Why are these people in the forest? Well, Frederick has deposed his brother, the rightful duke, and banished him to the forest. Orlando, after winning a wrestling match (brilliantly choreographed by Steve Pickering), flees to the forest also to escape the wrath of his brother, Oliver. Rosalind, the daughter of the rightful duke, goes into the forest after the handsome Orlando, first dressing herself as a man since "beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold." Her cousin Celia travels with her, and so does Touchstone, a clown. And in the forest are assorted shepherds and shepherdesses.

Once in the forest, these characters start to pair off. Touchstone takes up with a homely shepherd girl named Audrey, but he turns conventional romance upside down. Instead of his love object inflaming his desires, he acknowledges that his desires already exist, and he is merely looking for someone to satisfy them: "As the ox hath his bow, sir, the horse his curb and the falcon her bells, so man hath his desires; and as pigeons bill, so wedlock would be nibbling." Touchstone's arbitrary choice of a partner, however, forces Audrey to reject the simple shepherd who loves her.

Meanwhile, another homely shepherdess named Phebe is trying to ditch Silvius, the shepherd who is groveling at her feet. Now, a shrewd trader never displays too much interest in the desired object, because that will drive up the price, but Silvius is not shrewd. By begging for her attention, he makes Phebe vain, and confident she can get a better deal elsewhere. Rosalind, dressed as a man, overhears Silvius begging for Phebe's attentions, and advises the shepherdess to relent. "For I must tell you friendly in your ear," Rosalind says to the preening Phebe, "Sell when you can: you are not for all markets." Instead, Phebe falls in love with Rosalind.

But the central romance is between Rosalind and Orlando, two young, handsome lovers who are mutually attracted. Orlando does not recognize her dressed as a man, so she befriends him, and gets to listen as he sighs and pines for her. She offers to "cure" him of his affection by pretending to be Rosalind, so he can see how capricious and willful a woman in love can be. This is the central joke in the comedy, and it is shamelessly romantic.

But Rosalind is wise too, and serves as the voice of reason in matters of love. When Orlando says he will die if Rosalind rejects him, the disguised Rosalind quickly deflates such hyperbole: "The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love cause. . . . Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love."

And during a mock wedding ceremony, Orlando promises to love Rosalind forever and a day, but she advises, "Say 'a day,' without the 'ever.' No, no, Orlando; men are April when they woo, December when they wed: maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives."

Eric Simonson has done an admirable job of staging this play for the Bailiwick Repertory. Any young director who takes on Shakespeare is bound to get in over his head, and Simonson seems to have been overwhelmed at times. He couldn't, for example, get the actors to recite Shakespeare particularly well, so their actions seem detached from their speech. Jeremy Piven and Barb Prescott are certainly attractive enough as Orlando and Rosalind, but Piven's voice is thin, making him hard to hear at times, and Prescott's delivery tends to be flat, so their romance doesn't exactly throw off any sparks. Steve Totland goes to the opposite extreme, making Touchstone loud and frantic, but still failing to connect his actions to his words. Only Tim Monsion is an exception--his firm grasp of the dialogue as the melancholy Jacques allows him to create a personality to go with the words.

It's not fair to expect a director to double as elocution coach, but Simonson's conception of the play is as faint as some of the voices, and the pacing grows more slack with each act. It's as though Simonson lavished time and attention on the early scenes, and then, realizing the task was enormous and time was running out, simply slapped the later scenes together.

It's not a bad job by any means. Overall, Simonson has staged a coherent, intelligent production of As You Like It, and considering this is the first Shakespeare he has directed, that's impressive.

Besides, Simonson is dealing with love, that volatile commodity, so he's doing all right if he merely keeps it from blowing up in his face.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.


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