MSF transforms “As You Like It” in to a new and lovely tale
JACKSON, Mich.–When you have a star—like the Michigan Shakespeare Festival has in Janet Haley—it’s not surprising that you would not only pick your season around her talents, but that you might rewrite the play to put the spotlight on her abilities.
That’s what Director Robert Kauzlaric has done with Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, As You Like It. He’s not only rearranged the play, but he’s given lines to different people, moved around some of the more famous speeches, created encounters where the original play had none and expanded the theatricality of the show to put an emphasis on the redemptive power of storytelling.
How is this done? Primarily by making Jacques, the part played by Haley, into a major mover and shaker in the play. She’s not only an attendant of the exiled duke, she’s also narrator, poet and observer. She co-opts one of Rosalind’s famed monologues and owns the show’s launch. Haley is more than up for the part.
Haley is literature’s first Emo character, moping about deep in melancholy, caught up in the hardships of life in the forest. But she is also observer of the city and the court, telling the audience of all that has come before the show while the characters perform it in mime behind her. She starts with a prosaic quip, one the director will use again to launch one of the play’s more unexpected conversions. From there she shows herself to be the play’s wise fool, usurping Touchstone in the role who becomes more of an actor than an observer, in one of Shakespeare’s twists from his usual choice. Haley’s Jacques spies and teaches, spouting wisdom with the light-footedness of a jester and the demeanor of one in mourning. She makes each line count, delivering the Bard’s lines with clarity and purpose.
Despite this elevation of the character of Jacques, As You Like It remains one in which the heroine, Rosalind, takes center stage. Larissa Marten plays this self-actualizing heroine, one who takes charge of her own fate and dictates the actions that will take her to her ultimate goal. Marten imbues the character with both a strength and a vulnerable joy that greets the circumstances of the world. She is wise, but still capable of being surprised at the twists and turns that love enforces on its practitioners.
Marten is especially effective in the way she relates to others. She is joyfully intimate with Anu Bhatt’s Celia, creating a sisterly bond that is unbreakable despite the usurping duke’s efforts. She and Bhatt shine with a brightness on the otherwise darkly lit stage. They’re playful vocally and active physically. Marten is particularly amusing in the scenes where she pretending to be a man and pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. She is distinctly comedic and invites genuine laughter from the audience.
As the object of her affection, Brandon A. Wright’s Orlando is a forlorn but happy lover, a violent, put-upon younger brother, and the caretaker of an older, devoted servant. He wears all the different emotions well, giving himself over totally to each one in turn. He gets the most stage time as the mooning lover, fully thrown over after but a single meeting with the object of his affection. He masters both the physicality and the emotion of Orlando, moving with purpose and communicating strongly his intentions. Some of his choices are strangely modern, invoking laughter and amusement but sometimes seeming out of place in a play where no one else does the same.
As anyone who saw the MSF’s Importance of Being Earnest, with its scene-stealing butlers, knows, the directors of these productions are willing to let the most minor of characters take the spotlight. In this show, it was the animals that oft became the central comedic part in the scene. Sheep, goats, birds and deer were all a part of the scene and even without lines, managed to make their presence known in a memorable fashion.
In this play filled with memorable women, Kate Suffern makes sure her shepherdess, Phebe, joins the ranks. She starts as the disdainful lass rejecting the devoted suit of Eric Eilersen’s Silvius. She then makes her mark as the saucy wench who falls in love with the disguised Rosalind. She transforms immediately into a sex kitten, turning her shepherd’s crook into the equivalent of a stripper’s pole. She reminds us of just how bawdy Shakespeare can be, especially when given free rein by Director Kauzlaric.
While Kauzlaric strums the underlying themes of As You Like It like a finely-tuned lute, he never forgets that this is a comedy. There are plenty of shadows in David Stoughton’s lighting design, but the characters tarry only momentarily in them, quickly finding their way back to lightness and humor.
The technical elements all meet the usual high standards of the MSF company. Jeromy Hopgood’s scenic design combines court and forest with pieces that fly quickly in and out and can be moved about to create different places in the forest. It is simple, but effective and keeps things flowing without pause.
Fight director David Blixt remains committed to storytelling over choreography, without ever sacrificing the latter. The narrative power of the fighting and its ability to contribute to comedy is especially strong in the wrestling scene early in the play between Orlando and Charles.
Aly Renee Amidei returns as the costumer and she helps make the distinction between court and forest with her choices of outfits. Her costuming fits so well into the story and the characters’ personalities that it almost goes unnoted. It is not an end to itself, but a means of telling the story.
Overall, Kauzlaric uses As You Like It as a vehicle to celebrate love, storytelling and redemption. It makes merry with Shakespeare with its language–its fully fleshed out characters, its twists and turns and its inherent comedy. There are weddings, fighting, cross-dressing, monologuing and mistaken identity. All’s that missing is the dancing.
Click here for show days, times and details. You can see The Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s plays in both Jackson and Canton.