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BWW Feature: Inclusive and Contemporary AS YOU LIKE IT at Guthrie Theater

BWW Feature: Inclusive and Contemporary AS YOU LIKE IT at Guthrie Theater

Director Lavina Jadhwani has directed Shakespeare's celebratory comedy AS YOU LIKE IT before. This time, she had a clear intention underlying casting and concept: to enable audience members from many different heritages and sexualities to see themselves represented on stage. Her intent was fueled, in part, by her own memories of going to theater as a child, and loving it, but never seeing someone who looked like her on stage; she is of South Asian descent. So she chose to set the Guthrie's current production emphatically in the present, and to feature many actors of color, a lesbian couple and several other queer characters, a mixed race couple and a mixed age couple. This AS YOU LIKE IT is, in Jadhwani's words, meant to be "hereish and nowish" and informed by a deliberately intersectional feminist lens.

This feature delineates some ways this theoretical posture has been realized in practice in this production. It's based on my conversations with director Jadhwani and actor Sarah Agnew, one of three women actors who play roles conventionally performed by men and done as male. Agnew plays Touchstone, the fool and language meister in this world, as a woman. (Corin and Jacques are also played by women.)

Strong visuals at the top of the show announce the contemporary setting with glitz and glamour. The opening scene is imagined as a gala fundraiser, complete with velvet rope, bouncers, men in black tie, and women in skimpy sequined mini-dresses.

The next time we see the central character of Rosalind and her BFF/cousin Celia, they are in pink workout gear (sports bras and athletic shorts) teasing each other as part of a kick-boxing sequence. This neatly leads into the wrestling match where Rosalind falls head over heels in love with Orlando, the displaced and disowned younger brother of Oliver, one of Duke Frederic's leading advisors. Hanging over the wrestling mat is the word FIGHT spelled out in bright lights. Duke Frederic and Oliver have brother trouble in common: Frederic has banished his older brother from court. Duke Senior, Rosalind's father, is in exile in the nearby forest of Arden with a small coterie of followers.

The third appearance of Rosalind and Celia is in Rosalind's fantastically girly boudoir, complete with white fur and floral satin baby doll pjs. (The boudoir rises up on an elevator from a trap door onto the otherwise relatively bare thrust stage; scenic design is by Junghyun Georgia Lee.) An irate Duke Frederic bursts into this female precinct to banish Rosalind from court. Celia, in solidarity, appalled at her father's heartless violence, vows to go with her friend. They decide to take Touchstone, the Duke's fool, with them. Celia says Touchstone is uncommonly devoted to her, and will therefore agree to abandon her boss and her job.

This makes particular sense in this production since Touchstone is female. Agnew says her notion of Touchstone was that she was like "the cool aunt who gets high." Her allegiance is to Celia and the young women, more than to her employer, Duke Frederic. Like many of Shakespeare's (and Disney's) works, there is no mention of mothers in AS YOU LIKE IT, so an aunt is as close to a maternal presence as we get until very near the end of this production. More on that later.

The remainder of the show takes place in the forest. It's wintertime when the runaways arrive. Here's another opportunity for the superb costume designer Ilona Somogyi to put present day MInnesota on stage: people wear ear flap hats, buffalo plaid coats, work overalls. Jadhwani says "We wanted it to feel Midwestern!"

By now we have seen most of the actors, and thus have met a racially diverse cast: black, East Asian, South Asian, Latinx, mixed race, and white, all intermingled in a society that is clearly contemporary and multicultural. It's no surprise to learn that Jadhwani, who grew up in a Chicago suburb, spent time as a casting director in Chicago and believes in color conscious casting.

Jadhwani studied Indian classical dance as a girl and loving singing in choirs. Theater, she says, "is a team sport." This orientation gives her a leadership style that she describes as "horizontal and organic." One example: fairly late in the production process, actors of color pointed out that the wigs they had been given were not consistent in color with their skin tones. Since hair is such a powerful signifier, this discrepancy ran counter to the director's stated intention that audience members of all racial backgrounds should be able to see themselves represented accurately on stage. So the wigs were redone.

Another example: according to dramaturg Carla Steen at a post-show talkback, Jadhwani arrived with a spreadsheet detailing the cuts she intended in the text, some 13% of the canonical script. But those cuts weren't set in stone. Working together, Jadhwani and Agnew chose to trim some of Touchstone's meaner lines a bit further, though plenty of rascally digs remain.

Agnew accurately describes Touchstone's lines as "dense and complex" and that is particularly true in the first scene she has with Audrey, the somewhat daffy shepherdess for whom she falls, hard. Agnew actually played Audrey in the Guthrie's 2004 production of AS YOU LIKE IT: so she's had the rare pleasure of playing both sides of this love match. What's interesting in this production is that Audrey (Marika Proktor) is given real mastery in her own world though she can't compete with Touchstone's linguistic flourishes. Both of them try to shush the occasionally noisy offstage sheep Audrey tends. Touchstone fails miserably, but Audrey is in complete command. The two of them comprise one of the four couples who wed in the final moments of the play.

Those weddings are preceded by the arrival of Hymen, the god of marriage in Greek mythology. Here, though, Hymen is definitely female: an immensely pregnant golden vision, a clear homage to Beyonce, played by black actor Christiana Clark, who earlier carries the role of Corin, a straightforward, matter-of-fact shepherd.

Jadhwani says she felt the need to balance the toxic masculinity of the play's first scenes, filled as they are with violent disruption of familial bonds, with a strong sense of the maternal as the play draws to a close and four new families are founded.

Many productions of AS YOU LIKE IT omit Hymen's arrival altogether. Here, it was celebrated, and extended, and in fact replaced one of Touchstone's more elaborate speeches, which was cut. According to Agnew, the chief theatrical need for that final speech is to give the actor playing Rosalind time to change from her boy clothes into a wedding dress. Thus Jadhwani's choice to play up the magical appearance of Hymen relieved Agnew of a speech she was happy to surrender while underlining the intersectional feminist reading of the text the director wanted to foreground.

The only character who does not participate in the dance celebrating the wedding extravaganza at the conclusion of AS YOU LIKE IT is Jacques, the somewhat cynical loner who, mid-play, delivers the famous Seven Ages of Man speech. Jaques is referred to by other characters using the pronouns they/them/their. Sporting white, spiky hair and a great woolen cloak, Angela Timberman plays Jaques as a non-binary person.

In the final celebration, it is Duke Senior who invites Jaques to stay and dance. He appears to be deeply saddened by their refusal. It is possible that Duke Senior is, in fact, romantically bereft. This actorly choice provides a sense of further complexity and depth to the happy ending: we don't know, definitively, what is going on for everyone in this world. And that provides a fitting ending to an production that is meant to feel very contemporary.

Directors typically depart once a production opens. Thus Jadhwani was not present at the post-show talkback I attended two days later. But I think she would be pleased to learn that a young woman who self-identified as queer fought back tears as she thanked the company for allowing her to see herself on Shakespeare's stage. I dare say she was not alone.

AS YOU LIKE IT will play at the Guthrie through March 17.

Photo credit: Dan Norman


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From This Author Karen Bovard