By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
New Swan Shakespeare Festival always runs all summer and typically pairs one of the Bard of Avon’s comedies with one of his dramas.
“As You Like It” and “Julius Caesar” are this year’s shows, but for the first time in its 11 seasons, the company is also presenting a third production: “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (revised) (redone).”
That popular improv-style comedy pays homage to the prolific playwright and the considerably hefty body of his works for the stage but gently ribs the many shows while also giving actors a chance to exercise their comedic chops.
“As You Like It” was popular in its day and it’s revived frequently, for obvious reasons: Its tone is lighthearted, the characters trade witty repartee and speak in jest, and audiences are asked only to laugh and partake of the fun.
Yet, in light of “Complete Works” being on the season schedule, New Swan’s production at U.C. Irvine, directed by Beth Lopes, is afforded the luxury of hewing more toward the romantic and comedic-dramatic aspects of “As You Like It” than simply towards comedy.
It’s a luxury well-served not only by the cast, but by the canny casting by Lopes of women in several roles written for men.
It’s no coincidence that a key plot point of “As You Like It” is that Rosalind (Shavonne Grandison) disguises herself as a man after fleeing the court of her corrupt uncle, Duke Frederick (Sean Spann), one step ahead of being banished for disloyalty.
The play expounds upon the metaphysical complexities of such a disguise – intricacies that become all the more intriguing when one realizes that in Shakespeare’s day, men played all the roles.
In this case, in 1599, a male actor would portray a woman (Rosalind) disguised as a man (Ganymede) playing the “role” of a woman (“Rosalind”) to help “cure” a man’s lovesickness for the “real” Rosalind.
Shakespeare’s texts are rife with characters who meet someone of the opposite sex, drink them in with their eyes, and are instantly besotted, so smitten they can barely function.
So it is here, as Orlando (Evan Lugo) lands in Frederick’s court and is forced to take on the Duke’s most vaunted wrestler. At first beaten, he gets the upper hand and triumphs. Cheering him on are Frederick’s daughter, Celia (Heather Lee Echeverria), and his niece, Rosalind (Grandison).
Rosalind and Orlando are instantly mutually enamored, but events conspire against them. Soon, Rosalind and Celia have beaten a hasty retreat to the Forest of Arden, joined by court jester Touchstone (Abel Garcia).
The trio encounter Duke Senior (Sonya Cooke), whose throne was usurped by brother Frederick, and various members of the in-banishment Senior’s court such as Jaques (Hope Andrejack) and Amiens (Chris Hathaway). All three male roles are played here by women, adding new wrinkles to the play’s gender- and therefore identity-bending themes initiated by Shakespeare and extended by director Lopes.
Orlando and servant Adam (Erik Matibag) also arrive in Arden, Orlando having been banished by Frederick once Frederick realizes Orlando is the son of an old enemy.
Arden is the kind of seemingly magical place often found in Shakespeare’s works (Arcadia + Eden, perhaps?), so it’s no surprise multiple characters are enveloped by the spell of romance or that existing feelings are magnified: By story’s end, Orlando and Rosalind are together and Touchstone and Audrey (Meg Evans) and shepherdess Phebe (Crystal Kim) and shepherd Silvius (Giovanni Corzo) are similarly paired off.
In another case of love at first sight, the fourth couple is Rosalind’s cousin Celia and Olivia (Annelise Hermsen) – yet another cross-gender revision since the character Olivia was originally Orlando’s resentful older brother Oliver.
While all 14 actors are to be lauded, that’s especially true of the principals. Grandison’s Rosalind exudes girlish delight over her attraction to Orlando yet is every step of the way a clear-eyed realist. Thankfully, her Ganymede doesn’t even attempt to conceal her true gender, and throughout, Grandison is well-paired with Lugo’s gallant yet humble Orlando.
For his expert comic timing, Garcia is one of New Swan’s go-to guys for laughs. He’s no less so here as Touchstone, whose overt silliness mixes with wit and sagacity. Spann’s Frederick ever shows the world only harshness. In stark contrast is banished sister Duke Senior, portrayed by Cooke as dignified, honorable and virtuous.
Echeverria’s Celia is ever true and loyal to Rosalind, the pair more like close sisters than cousins. Hermsen’s forceful Olivia is imbued with a strong mind and personality. Lopes wisely taps Chris Hathaway’s vocal abilities, her now-female Amien singing whenever Jaques plays guitar.
Andrejack’s musical skills and comic timing make Jaques a focal point here. The character’s offbeat wackiness is showcased not only via some of the author’s most immortal passages (eg. the Seven Ages of Man speech), but in the production’s use of Jaques to bracket the entire play – notably a reimagined closing that makes more sense than the original script’s.
Kathryn Poppen’s costumes are appealing to the eye but not so bold as to pull our focus. The staging’s various design elements are all of a piece, from Efren Delgadillo Jr.’s scenic design and Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting to Mark Caspary’s sound, Zachary Dietz’s music direction and composer Matt Berger’s original music.
New Swan’s fight choreographer, Michael Polak, invests the one-on-one combat scenes with excitement while maintaining a sense of realism.
As with so many of the classics reimagined by Lopes, this “As You Like It” has a lot more up its sleeve than simply inducing laughs. Its gender-bending characterizations will prompt you to think about the nature of identity and its impact upon that most stunning and unpredictable of identity-revealing emotions, love.
New Swan Shakespeare Festival, Gateway Commons/Gateway Plaza, 4004 Mesa Road, Irvine (University of California, Irvine). Through Sept. 1. Running time (with intermission): 2 hours, 30 minutes. Tickets: $23-$90. Ticket purchase/information: 949-854-4646, www.newswanshakespeare.com.