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An Attempt at a Theatrical Review

Thursday evening, I was fortunate enough to attend a work-sponsored trip to see Shakespeare's As You Like It. I'd studied the play in college, so I was more than passingly familiar, but, just to make sure, I reread the play Wednesday evening. Having heard that the production was going to emphasize the numerous songs and do a sort of "Old Hollywood" thing, I was really looking forward to it. Boy, were my hopes misplaced.

I can understand modern directors of Shakespeare and other classic playwrights wanting to modernize, update or otherwise interpret classic and well-known pieces. Generally speaking, a new twist, period, or setting can make a familiar or seemingly inaccessible classic fresh and alive to a modern audience. There has been a Hamlet set in a modern corporation, an Oedipus Rex set in an African tribe, and just about every classic ever set in Nazi Germany. Sometimes this production succeed brilliantly--they show us how alive and pertinent these classics are. Other times, they fail--not only do they not open the modern mind to familiar wisdom, the actually muddle and diminish the brilliance of the original work.

Unfortunately, the Washington, DC Shakespeare Theater's production of As You Like It falls squarely into this latter category. Directed by Maria Aitken, everything about this production--sets, costumes, performances--is wonderful, except for its overwrought conceits. I say "conceits," plural, because there are two main ones in this production. Like almost all great works of art, As You Like It has multiple themes at work--two of which are the value of liberty and the almost magical nature of the Forest of Arden. I won't profess to know why these two themes popped out most strongly to the director, but such decisions are difficult to understand from the outside, so I won't presume to question them.

The liberty theme was highlighted by transposing most of the action of the play to America; the magic theme, by using the making of a film version of the play as a sort of framing device. Neither of these techniques come off perfectly, and together, they simply muddy the waters. To my mind, the transference of much of the play to America was actually quite clever--in the end, the Hollywood trope serves as little more than an excuse to keep the curtain up as the stagehands shuffle through numerous sets. Even the American motif falls under its own weight, however, as the director decided to use almost every other scene as an excuse to jump forward in American history. I generally consider myself an intelligent man, but I cannot for the life of me determine what reason there was for such a device except to facilitate many set and costume changes and bring the final scene into the Golden Age of Hollywood. Maybe it's something about the ultimate expression of American freedom being classic 1930's Hollywood, finally pairing the two themes of the play? That might be an interesting suggestion, but it casts no light whatsoever on William Shakespeare's As You Like It.

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