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As You Like It

The Heart of the Matter

Children's Shakespeare Theatre, Palisades Presbyterian Church, Sparkill, New York
Friday, June 3, 2016, Second row, center seats in fellowship hall
Directed by Diana Green

Orlando in dog cap, white shirt, blue paisely vest, multicolor striped pants, and brown leather manbag across his shoulder, hands on hips, Rosalind also in dog cap, white shirt, leavy tan leisure jacket, blue jeans with colorful patches, other actors sitting on chairs in the background.
Orlando (Noah King, left) listens to Rosalind (Anna Puris), disguised as Ganymede, as she proposes to pretend to be Rosalind in order to cure Orlando of his love sickness in the Children's Shakespeare Theatre production of William Shakespeare's As You Like It. Photo by Eric Minton.

I really would rather not bring up the topic. I'm here to write about my experience watching William Shakespeare's As You Like It as perceived and presented by this particular cast and its director, Diana Green. My reactions to this production are both generic and singular. I like the Flower Power setting, which I've seen done before, and the use of Beatles tunes throughout. I appreciate an Orlando who's as much romantic poetry geek as he is a strapping romantic hero, a Rosalind with as much impishness in her as sincerity, and a Touchstone who is as clownish as they come. I love the hilarious Corin and the smashing Phoebe, but that there is no Jacques bothers me. In fact, Shakespeare's second-most famous speech has been cut from this hour-long production.

All of that should be the sole focus of this article, because that's what matters to me. What matters to most everybody else, however, is that this As You Like It is performed by kids ages 8–14, members of the Children's Shakespeare Theatre (CST). I'm not saying that's not important, for their ages matter in the interpretation of the play. I'm just saying, on the matter of kids that age performing Shakespeare, get over it: It's not some kind of miracle that children "get" Shakespeare or even that they can perform it with an understanding comparable to any community theater group and many professional theaters I've seen (which is to say, some of the actors handle the verse well and portray their characters with real understanding, some haven't a clue what they are saying, and the bulk are ranged in between). They are Shakespeareans; that matters. Their age, not so much.

I'm extra sensitive to this topic because I wasn't the only journalist at this semipublic performance, a final run-through dress rehearsal of a production that would, in the next couple of days, be heading for Stratford, Ontario, and the 14th Annual World Festival of Children's Theatre (CST was representing the United States in a festival featuring 22 troupes from around the world). Also in attendance for the performance at CST's play space, the parish house of Palisades Presbyterian Church in Rockland County just north of New York City, was a local television news crew—which was cool, as it publicized the theater and its fine work. But, of course, the fact that kids were doing "SHAKESPEARE!" inspired the anchorwoman to raise her pitch saying this with a "can you believe it" emphasis. Fortunately, the reporter of the piece respectfully focused on how the kids learned to grasp Shakespeare's lines (a nice, albeit short primer) and on their invitation to the world festival. As for the fact that these are kids learning Shakespeare, Anna Puris, who played Rosaline, smacked down the age qualification: "Anyone can do anything they want if they set their heart to it," she said on the newscast (a link to the newscast is at the top of the links bar to the right).

She nailed my sentiments exactly. Shakespeare isn't about being smart; it's about appreciation. It's about how his words inspire you to think and how they make you feel. There is no age limit, up or down. That was a lesson I learned as a freshman in college when, for a newspaper article, I interviewed third graders learning Twelfth Night and waxed amazement that these kids could be so smart when the real issue was that I was being so dumb. That was a year before I set my own heart to Shakespeare. It's why, as I have written about on, I took my sons to live Shakespeare plays when they were as young as 5 years old, launching their own lifelong love of Shakespeare. When my youngest, Ian, was playing Hamlet on the playground, another kid's mother marveled at his intelligence. "I can barely even read Hamlet, let alone recite it," she said. I wanted to say, well, yeah, he's intelligent but what I really like is how he's capturing the moral conundrum of the part, but that would reveal me as a jerk; in fact, I didn't say anything but maybe "uh-huh" because to me it was no big deal. Ian's heart happened to be in it (and still is). The right answer would have been, of course, "Anyone can do anything they want if they set their heart to it," thank you, Miss Puris.

Thus, for me, the coolest thing about discussing Philip the Bastard of King John with Kate Gadd—both of us agreeing on why he's one of the greatest characters in Shakespeare's canon—is that I actually could have such a conversation with somebody. Not a lot of people know that play. That Kate is in middle school is beside the point (she played Philip in a CST production last season).

Credit for the company and also its approach to Shakespeare goes to Diana Green. As a young girl in New York in 1972, she and some other kids gathered in the living room of actress and teacher Jean Brock to read Macbeth before attending a production starring two of Brock's friends. The group grew in number and began putting on full-scale productions, becoming the first Children's Shakespeare Theatre. It lasted five years. Green resurrected the company in 1999 based on the simple principle that children should be exposed to Shakespeare. With exposure, comes love, and with love comes understanding (beyond Shakespeare). And with understanding comes some fine performances, whatever the age.

We can put Green's own Shakespearean insights to the test right off: How can you stage As You Like It without Jacques and his "All the world's a stage" speech? Her answer: When you are cutting the play down to an hour (per its use as a touring piece for the Festival) and you want to maintain its plot and gender identity themes, Jacques in his entirety is the easiest thing to cut without impacting the rest of the play. Sure, you lose that speech and some funny scenes with Rosalind and Orlando, but Jacques is, in fact, not integral to the play's plot; you could argue that his thematic presence is superfluous, too. However, Green has since told me that she is working on a new series of original adaptations that would "be better suited to a festival in the future, rather than simply a short cut of a play."

Green obviously not only loves and respects Shakespeare, she's a theater practitioner. And, again, age is not an obstacle—well, for the most part. For As You Like It, the actors sit in chairs along the back of the stage when not performing. It's practical but, in application, has an uneven effect. A couple of actors remain in character the whole while, especially Noah King as Orlando, who studiously writes and studies his poetry as he waits for his cue. Others watch the action attentively but neutrally. A few, however, sit like bored kids with nothing to do, slouched, biting fingernails, focusing on some object many miles or light years away, or giggling with a friend.

Where age of the actors comes into play is in their perspective. This As You Like It, especially the world of the court, mirrors the society of a middle school. King's Orlando is forever forlorn. He's a good guy, a romantic, an intellectual, and pretty good-looking, but he's not part of the in-crowd despite his breeding. He wins the wrestling match against Charles by determination and some good luck, but he wins Rosalind by being himself. In the world of the court he's a geek, but in the Forest of Arden he's cool. Puris's Rosalind has deeper issues to deal with, not so much an outcast but an imposed-upon outsider, the new kid everybody treats warily. Journee Benjamin as Duke Frederick, who usurped the rule of Rosalind's father but didn't banish Rosalind at the request of his own daughter, Celia, gives an insightful reading to her entrance line before the wrestling match. "How now, daughter"—and with her tone suddenly changing to one of disdain—"and cousin." Critics often note that Rosalind is generally quiet in the first part of the play but won't shut up once she gets to the Forest of Arden. The reason can be interpreted in a number of ways, but Puris shows us in these first scenes the social pressure Rosalind is under, where anything she says can get her in trouble. Indeed, even her caution gets her in trouble: her uncle refers to "Her very silence and her patience" among the reasons for finally banishing her.

Of course, Celia, as Julia Sciorra portrays her, is going to run away with her cousin. She is the fun-loving best friend without a hint of the romantic in her. Her approach to "falling in love" is to treat it as a sport. "Love no man in good earnest," she counsels Rosalind. "Nor no further in sport neither than with safety of a pure blush thou mayst in honor come off again." Stay clear of this flirt, gentlemen, for she will break your heart. When Rosalind and Orlando meet and advance instantly to infatuation, bounding in a single heartbeat over smitten, Celia tells Orlando, "If you do keep your promises in love but justly, as you have exceeded all promise, your mistress shall be happy," pulling her cousin away and clearly emphasizing that Orlando has yet to meet his mistress. That Celia later bounds over smitten and infatuation straight to marriage with Oliver (Nick Hughes-Barrow) is part of her character arc as Sciorra plays her. Oliver is well-bred, but a jerk back in court; once in Arden, OMG, this hot guy is suddenly a real sweetheart.

The comic timing among the trio of Sciorra, King, and Puris is precise and perfectly fitted to the lines they speak. Cooper Rosen as Touchstone uses situational mimes to support the humor in his lines. He greets his arrival in the forest with a slap at a mosquito on his face. As he discusses with Corin the life in the country versus the court, he describes how, "in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well"; but he has just stepped in something in the field, whereupon he says, "but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious," shaking his foot. Rosen also can get a line to do its own heavy lifting, too. "That is another simple sin in you, to bring the ewes and rams together and to offer to get your living by the copulation of cattle," Rosen says with utter incredulity but also a perfect cadence that brings forth the phonetic humor in this string of words.

Corin in orange checked shirt, blue overalls, wide-brimmed hat and holding a curvey carved walking stick, Touchstone in yellow knit cap, blue floral shirt, bright orange and red vest, and horizontally multi-color striped pants, and holding a small brown whisky jug.
Corin (Cole Massaro, left) talks with Touchstone (Cooper Rosen) in the Children's Shakespeare Theatre production of As You Like It. Photo by Eric Minton.

Cole Massaro is Corin, and a better played old shepherd I can't say I've seen. Thanks to his common-man's philosophical spiel and his good nature, Corin is usually played with gentle gravitas. Massara, however, finds much humor in the part, a rural wit on an equivalent scale comic inflection as Touchstone, the court wit. Whether it's the romantic infatuation of Sylvius (Sia Laddis), the self-importance of the motley fool that is Touchstone, or the over-earnestness of Ganymede (Rosalind), Massara's Corin treats them as a source of entertainment, and treats us with his dryly delivered but pointed commentary.

The hippy costuming designed by Green doesn't carry much thematic resonance, though it dresses the play as a light-hearted, nostalgic comedy. The Beatle musical interludes carry a bit more thematic weight, especially with the song "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," from the Abbey Road album. With its relentless repetition of the lines "I want you" and "I want you so bad" and three-word chorus, "She's so heavy," this was John Lennon's all-consuming horny ode to Yoko Ono. The song accompanies Phoebe's entrance, which is perfect as Gadd shows such relentless attention to Ganymede (Rosalind in disguise), though Rosalind makes clear her disdain for Phoebe. "Mistress, know yourself: down on your knees, and thank heaven, fasting, for a good man's love," Rosalind says, meaning Silvius, the shepherd who so dotes on Phoebe; however, Gadd's Phoebe already has, upon command, dropped to her knees in supplication to Ganymede.

Gadd captures something in Phoebe I don't often see in other portrayals: that the girl is paying no attention to what Rosalind is really saying. Her attention is 100 percent focused on her Ganymede-centered fantasies, and only after Ganymede has left the stage does Phoebe admit a vague recollection, like a distant memory, that the pretty youth had "scorn't at me. I marvel why I answer'd not again," she says, and Gadd's Phoebe is truly clueless on that point. Such relentlessness would make a hard sell of Phoebe's acquiescence to love Silvius at the end after Rosalind reveals herself, but Gadd does sell it, in part due to the fact that, now that she sees Ganymede is a woman, all her previous fantasies are for naught. She's also aided by the Beatle song playing at that moment, "All You Need Is Love."

That most appropriate Beatle number is not the finale, however. The show ends with the cast singing and dancing to "Twist and Shout," which is ideally suited to this play and perfectly caps a fun performance.

Eric Minton
August 23, 2016

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