Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories are mined over and over again for contemporary relevance and political allegory, but for the comedies, sometimes it seems like enough of a modern gloss just to find a way to land the jokes. While Taming of the Shrew’s gender politics lend themselves to a twenty-first-century deconstruction, it’s rare to see a Twelfth Night or a Midsummer Night’s Dream that gives you a new insight into the play through the prism of today. But Arden/Everywhere, director Jessica Bauman’s interpretation of As You Like It, does just that, finding a theme in the text I’d never before considered: the theme of exile. And once you look through that lens, that theme is everywhere. Outside of a few establishing scenes early in the play that are set at court, the piece’s characters are all people cast out from their homes, living in the Forest of Arden in a community that is provisional and strange, in a sort of suspension from the world and from normal society.
Suddenly, in this light, a modern analogy is clear: almost everyone in As You Like It is, at least temporarily, a refugee. Compounding the metaphor, this Arden (in Gabriel Hainer Evansohn’s elegant set) is camp as much as forest, formed of stacked wood pallets and corrugated metal, littered with potentially re-purposable debris, and serving as a soccer field as often as not. The only structure is a shack that serves as noticeboard, general store, cellphone charging station (when the generators are working), community center, and everything else. And Bauman has also assembled, with real thoughtfulness and care, a cast that mingles experienced, international professional actors with students and an ensemble of young immigrant performers from around the world; the group of sixteen is both multiethnic and multilingual, weaving other languages, songs of other cultures, and sometimes their own personal stories of immigration, exile, and belonging into the piece.
While this lens of exile adds a genuinely moving layer of consequence to the play and a poignancy to the interactions among the characters, there are times when the theme meshes uneasily with the fundamentally lightweight nature of the underlying story of As You Like It, an often silly pastorale built around the theme of love at first sight. In the central love plot, Rosalind (Helen Cespedes), the exiled daughter of the earlier-exiled duke, falls for Orlando (Anthony Cason Jr.), the younger son of a nobleman who’s on the run from an elder brother who wants him dead. As if being cast penniless from their homes weren’t obstacle enough, when they meet again, Rosalind is in disguise as the boy Ganymede, a piece of protective coloration under the circumstances, and contrives to spend time with Orlando as a Rosalind-substitute. In the various subplots, Shepherdess Phebe (Indika Senanayake) then falls for Ganymede, even as Silvius (Kambi Gathesha) pines after her, though her surliness and poutiness shouldn’t endear her to either. Touchstone (Dennis Kozee), the court fool who comes on the run with Rosalind and her cousin Celia (Liba Vaynberg), falls for Audrey (Alessandra Mesa); they barely speak the same language and it seems like Touchstone’s love is born mostly of boredom. And in the flimsiest bond of all, when Orlando’s brother, Oliver (Kambi Gathesha), turns on a dime and repents his wickedness, Celia falls for him as quickly as his conversion occurs, and the two happy noble couples can wed together (and return to their rightful domain, along with Rosalind’s father, the restored duke). There’s only so much that Bauman and the ensemble can do to add heft to the sunniness, and silliness, of the play’s central love stories, rich in slightly salacious wordplay and light on genuine emotional connections. (There is something to be made of the idea of the relationships’ very thinness–an idea about the transactional nature of relationships in limbo; the idea that without the grounding of one’s home or a way to be a productive member of society, one might as well fall in “love” to pass the time–that fits, though this may be more in my mind than in the work the show is actually doing.)
Too, the absurdity of the lengthy central section of the play, during which a confused but resigned Orlando woos Ganymede-qua-Rosalind until she finally confesses the truth literally at the altar (her own father hasn’t recognized her heretofore either), is almost impossible to transcend. Cason and Cespedes give it their best shot, though. Cason embraces Orlando’s bafflement, and Cespedes gives Rosalind a charming air of constant improvisation, more effective in her scheming than when she’s moping after Orlando, which leans a little too melodramatic. Strong performances and the strength of the central conceit make the piece well worth watching.
There are also some wonderful comic turns in the smaller parts–Alessandra Mesa as Audrey, who mostly speaks irate Spanish to a baffled Touchstone but nonetheless they gain something from each other’s company. Indika Senanayake is a marvelously cranky, over-the-top Phebe. Kenneth De Abrew’s Corin, conceived here as the all-purpose camp “fixer” with a finger in every pie and a solution to every problem for the right price, is the heart of the camp, the engine that keeps its creaky machinery running.
But in the end, it’s not the romantic yearnings that stick with you from Arden/Everywhere–it’s the more inchoate and deeper yearnings for home, for safety, for family. The piece begins and ends with tableaus of parting; in the beginning, it’s refugees beginning their journey to the unknown. At the end, it’s Rosalind, Celia, the Duke, et al. returning home–a happy ending, for them, but a bittersweet one for those left in limbo.
Arden/Everywhere runs at Baruch Performing Arts Center until October 28. Click here for more details.