Before superhero comics came along, what franchise did directors reboot endlessly to bank on a tried-and-true product while satisfying audiences’ cravings for novelty and relatability?
Shakespeare, of course! The Bard has been refashioned in every era from dystopian fascism to the Fifties to Wall Street in order to make him more relevant.
The British Players’ placing Shakespeare’s classic comedy As You Like It in the groovy Woodstock era not only updates the setting but makes sense of some plot holes in the original — most notably, why are a bunch of noblemen hanging out in the woods? Turning them into a group of hippies grooving in nature instead of battling the cutthroat politics of a gangsterish court works extremely well.
Director Fred Zirm’s charming conception of the show draws not just on hippies, but on every 1960s and early 1970s trope, from the Godfather to Darth Vader to professional wrestling to Black Panthers to country farmers straight out of Hee Haw. Fittingly, Jennifer Morrissey’s costumes play with all the different looks of the era — peasant dresses, schoolgirl jumpers, psychedelic mini-dresses and go-go boots, army surplus, denim, black fedoras and trench coats, and of course lots of vests, tie dye, and bellbottoms. William Fleming’s fight coordination works too, whether seriously between feuding brothers or humorously in the pro-wresting/Rocky parody of Orlando’s challenge. Matt Mills’ sound also fits the theme, incorporating clips from Rocky, The Godfather, and Darth Vader’s theme, but more important makes every syllable of Shakespeare’s verse audible.
Here, too, Zirm’s direction and the update serve the material well; the cast are all encouraged to deliver the lines naturalistically and conversationally, whether as a mafioso like the excellently menacing Robert Teachout’s evil Duke Frederick, or a New York bruiser like Bill Bodie — who then shows a completely new character as the ultra-hippie-dippy Duke Senior. Some characters are not at all groovy — Touchstone the Jester shows up with a madras plaid jacket for his “motley coat” and manages to convey the humor of his jests as much through his delivery as through the words themselves. And Steven Malone delivers a standout cameo as the argyle-sweater-clad old family servant Adam, endearing simply in the way he walks across the stage and utterly delightful “dancing” (shuffling around) in a halo and wings in the final wedding scene.
There is enough gender-bending in the production to satisfy the most woke modern patron as well as the most ardent Shakespearean. Whereas all the female parts in the original production would have been played by boys, in this case, many of the male parts are played by female (or nonbinary) actors. Jordyn Nicole, as Oliver, an evil older brother, delivered his lines effectively but could have made more of his dramatic change of heart. Timilin Sanders was very affecting as Orlando, the main romantic hero, in his stubble and man-bun, both in fighting the villains and staring entranced at the heroine. And as that heroine Rosalind, Betsy Schugar presents beautifully both as a graceful lady and amusingly as a sassy young man. Celia Lindgren sparkles as the spunky sidekick, and Liv Meredith stands out in the dual role of the hillbilly shepherdess Audrey and the sassy mod Phoebe, a valley girl before her time.
There’s an old joke that Hamlet would be a great play if it weren’t for all the clichés. As You Like It, similarly, brims with lines that are so familiar we tend to forget they are part of a play. “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love,” and “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players” can be hard to make fresh and new. But this cast manages well. Elizabeth Darby as the melancholy camo-clad Jaques, in particular, imbues the Seven Ages of Man speech with worlds of meaning simply by pulling out dog tags while speaking of the soldier, “Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel …Even in the cannon’s mouth.” Suddenly you see that the source of his melancholy in the comrades he lost in ‘Nam, and the entire play takes on new depths of emotion.
One tricky element in plays that aren’t actually written as musicals is how to incorporate song. Music is integral to this play; there are more songs in it than in any other Shakespeare, but how to present it is left to the production. Here, too, Music Director Arielle Bayer makes the most of the ’60s setting, from the opening distinctive tones of the classic Fender Rhodes electric piano, through the guitars and tambourines of the Duke’s court grooving out in the woods. Jacques does a very funny Bob Dylan impersonation when, after wearing out his musicians feeding his melancholy, he adds his own verse to one song. And perhaps the most touching moment in the show is a scene where the hippies provide the dead-weary Adam with food and drink and lead him off to rest while serenading him with “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” accompanied by a plaintive banjo.
This sense of communal love and compassion weaves throughout the show, in between the comedy and conflict. It even shows up front-of-house, with the British Players providing free hot drinks and blankets to take home due to a heating system failure in the Kensington Town Hall.
As You Like It may be a 424-year-old comedy, but in this reincarnation, it is a charming celebration of love and community. See As You Like It and Peace Out, Man!
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours with one 15-minute intermission.
As You Like It by William Shakespeare plays through April 1, 2023, presented by the British Players performing at the Kensington Town Hall, 3710 Mitchell Street, Kensington, MD. For tickets ($28; $15 for under 18), go online.
COVID Safety: Masks, although optional, are encouraged to ensure everybody’s health and wellness.
SEE ALSO: Fred Zirm on directing a Woodstock-era ‘As You Like It’ for British Players (interview by Michelle Hessel and Lauren Pacuit, March 10, 2023)
As You Like It
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Fred Zirm
Music Direction by Arielle Bayer
Produced by Lauren Pacuit and Michelle Hessel