In Shakespeare’s comedies, forests are places of transformation, playfulness, love, and healing, an alternative to and inversion of the rigid rules and patriarchal norms that define cities and royal courts. Think of the licentious liberty of the forest outside of Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or consider the magical island where Prospero lives in The Tempest. But Shakespeare’s forest of Arden in As You Like It may be his most wondrous green world—where an exiled Duke and his royal followers live like Robin Hood and his merry men, where lovelorn shepherds become philosophers and poets, a place of lyricism and love, where there are “tongues in trees… sermons in stones.”
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company (CSC) begins its 21st season with As You Like It directed by the Company’s founding artistic director Ian Gallanar with warmth, humor, and congeniality.
Gallanar’s concept for the production—1940s Francoist Spain—creates a clear binary between the fascist court of the usurping Duke Frederick and the forest of Arden. For those of us who may forgotten the Spanish Civil War and ensuing decades of dictatorship unit in European history class, the expert styling of set (Kathyrn Kwecki), lighting (Jennifer Leon), sound (Gallanar does double duty), costumes (Kristina Lambdin), props (John Bakker), and innovative projections (Mark Williams) all hint at a historic moment and setting, without belaboring the point.
Duke Frederick (a stern and cold Gregory Burgess) rules from the balcony of his Brutalist concrete compound, where his demands and decrees are projected on large screens, creating a Big Brother vibe of surveillance and cowardice. In his royal court, all members wear gray clothing—crisp, gray business suits for the men, and tailored gray dresses for the women.
Frederick’s court is where men deny familial and political duty: Frederick has overthrown his brother Duke Senior and banishes his niece Rosalind, and Oliver de Boys has disinherited his youngest brother Orlando and thrown out his elderly loyal servant Adam (a touching and comic turn by Scott Alan Small). Rosalind and her dearest cousin Celia decide to disguise themselves as a shepherd and his sister for their safety, and Orlando and Adam pack up their meager belongings. All the exiles flee to Arden.
Arden is a polychromatic and musical world, where court and country come together. Green projections of swaying trees and sun-dappled leaves enliven the gray set. Ami Dang’s original compositions blend elements of North Indian classical music with dominant sitar notes. The shepherds and refugees in Arden wear traditional Basque costumes in vibrant hues embroidered with bright flowers and vines or quilted together from vivid patterned fabrics.
Arden is Edenic, where people of different classes, backgrounds, and languages come together in harmony. An occasional Shakespearean line is delivered in Spanish and love notes attached to the pillars of the theater are written in a variety of languages. In addition to Spanish and Basque designs, there are nods to South Asian culture, too, from music to occasional fabric choices. This all adds to the specialness of Arden, where all languages of love beautify the natural surroundings. This idyllic world is where refugees are welcomed into the fold and strict class hierarchies all but dissolve; the disposed Duke Senior (a convivial Brendan Murray) and his lords (Michael P. Sullivan, Saraniya Tharmarajah, Elana Michelle) break their bread with hard-working herders (Jonas Connors-Grey, Matt Harris).
In Arden, we have many young lovers in a myriad of complex love geometries (love triangles are too simple) before pairing off into couples. There is the doting Silvius (Jordan Brown) and his dismissive target Phebe (Lizzi Albert) who pines for another Rosalind in her masculine guise; the randy pairing of the goatherd Audrey (Kate Forton) and court jester Touchstone; the love-at-first-sight couple Celia (Surasree Das) and the reformed Oliver de Boys (Ethan Larsen); and the heart of the play—Rosalind (Lauren Davis) and Orlando (Gabriel Alejandro). Albert’s Phebe taking ole timey thirst trap photos with a large vintage camera and Dylan Arredondo’s lecherous Touchstone steal many scenes.
The trio of CSC company members Lauren Davis as Rosalind, Gabriel Alejandro as Orlando, and Surasree Das as Celia are all especially commendable in their performances and have beautiful chemistry together. Davis plays one of Shakespeare’s most irrepressible and charming comedic heroines with wit and authenticity. Her Rosalind is plucky and resourceful, unable to be brought low by her uncle’s cruelty and commanding her scenes where she teaches Orlando how to woo a lady. Alejandro and Das both burn brightly in their CSC debuts. Alejandro is utterly disarming as Orlando, capably covering the young man’s shifting fortunes and generally upbeat personality with aplomb. And Das is pure gold as Celia—showing the character’s growth from a sheltered but kind-hearted princess into an (almost) independent young woman—exuding energy and enthusiasm at every turn.
There were still a few rough spots on opening night, such as an occasional missed line or cue, and the pacing was off for the first few scenes of the play in Duke Frederick’s court, heavy on exposition and performed a few beats too slowly—excepting the comic bravado of Charles the luchador (Jordan Brown) and Rosalind’s tongue-tied flirting with Orlando. But the conclusion of the play—couples are wed, brothers reunited, wrongs forgiven, and order restored all via a projected deus ex machina moment—and the ending jig (here done as a bright Bollywood-style dance) offer a place of respite, renewal, and community.
As Celia claims upon first entering Arden, “I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it.” At CSC, the forest of Arden welcomes you for an enchanted evening.
As You Like It plays through October 22, 2023, at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. Adult tickets start at $29; tickets for youths under 25 start at $28. Subscriptions and tickets can be purchased by calling 410-244-8570, ordering online, or visiting the Box Office in person.
The program for As You Like It is online here.
DUKE SENIOR – Brendan Murray
ROSALIND – Lauren Davis*
DUKE FREDERICK – Gregory Burgess*
CELIA – Surasree Das
OLIVER DE BOYS – Ethan Larsen
ORLANDO DE BOYS – Gabriel Alejandro
JAQUES DE BOYS – Michael P. Sullivan*
ADAM – Scott Alan Small*
TOUCHSTONE – Dylan Arredondo
AMIENS – Elana Michelle*
LE BEAU/LORD – Saraniya Tharmarajah
PHEBE – Lizzi Albert*
SILVIUS/CHARLES – Jordan Brown
CORIN – Jonas Connors-Grey*
AUDREY – Kate Forton*
WILLIAM – Ty Velines
Director – Ian Gallanar*
Production Manager – Sarah Curnoles*
Assistant Director – Molly Moores*
Stage Manager – Marshall B Garret
Set Design – Kathryn Kawecki
Lighting Design – Jeniffer Leon
Sound Design – Ian Gallanar*
Costume Design – Kristina Lambdin*
Props Design – John Bakker
Projection Design – Mark Williams
Music Director – Grace Srinivasan*
Composer – Ami Dang
Puppet Maker – Jessica Rassp*
Dance/Movement Choreographer – Shea Hemby
Fight Choreographer/Intimacy Director – Jordan Stanford
Assistant Stage Manager – Cat Moreschi
Dramaturg – Michael Lonegro*
* CSC Company Member