backstage (2006-05)

Peeling Back Layers

Director balances dreariness and frivolity in

I GOT YOUR BACK: Merrill and Levinson as lovebirds Rosalind and Orlando.

by Molly Kincaid

Some scholars postulate that Shakespeare titled As You Like It to suggest that, though he himself wasn’t particularly fond of writing lighthearted romantic comedies, he was merely obliging the audiences of the time. Even so, he seemed born to do just this kind of writing, having the insight and wit to infuse it with just enough cynicism to trump our modern cinematic romantic comedies, most of which are reduced to watered-down drivel when you take away the chiseled actors and snazzy sets.

And while most productions of As You Like It tend to focus on the sanguine bliss of being struck by Cupid’s arrow, this one, directed by Joseph Haj, is careful not to glaze over the darker, lonelier parts of the script—parts you may have even forgotten if the last time you read the play was through the rose-colored glasses you wore in high school English class.

As if to echo Shakespeare’s own misgivings about the play, Haj, a Los Angeles-based freelance actor and director who also directed last year’s Metamorphosis at Clarence Brown Theatre, says, “When they first asked me to do the play I wasn’t sure, because there’s something about the productions I’ve seen that have a forced frivolity about them.” But in rereading the play, he began to recognize its depth. “The play itself is about seasons and the different times and changes in our lives—being in love and all the different archetypes of life…The journey from the cold, totalitarian winter into the spring is a kind of wonderful one,” he says.

To create the feeling of the stark winter in the Forest of Arden, Haj opened up the backstage area of the theater, exposing the cinderblock wall in the rear and creating a space nearly twice the size normally used at CBT. “The space is so vast, and I just love the idea of these two people trying to find each other in this huge landscape,” says Haj.

Orlando and Rosalind, the play’s protagonists, indeed spend the majority of the play yearning blindly for one another, shedding light on the painful sting that can come with burgeoning love. The plot also entails the stories of several other couples’ courtships; Oliver and Celia, Touchstone and Audrey, and Silvius and Phoebe. And despite the predictable happily-ever-after denouement, much agony and idiocy befall the characters in their efforts to woo. As the clown Touchstone sagely observes of love’s foibles, “We that are true lovers run into strange capers. But as all is mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly.” Brad DePlanche, the New York actor who plays Touchstone, says, “Shakespeare just writes such beautiful lines for his clowns to say.”

The premise of the play is that Duke Frederick usurps his older brother, Duke Senior, and banishes him to the Forest of Arden. He banishes too Duke Senior’s daughter Rosalind, who flees to the forest in the guise of a man called Ganymede, but not before she meets a young man named Orlando and the two fall in love at first sight. Rosalind’s cousin, who’s also Frederick’s daughter, Celia steals away to the forest as well,

Thus, the scene is set, and the various lovers are all wandering about the dark, cold forest, some disguised and all befuddled. The lovestruck Orlando hangs lusty poems to Rosalind in the forest’s trees and mopes about his lovesickness to any willing ear. Ganymede (the disguised Rosalind) convinces Orlando to practice his wooing on he/she, thus learning coyly the depth of his love before letting herself be won over. “The play asks the central question, ‘Why does Rosalind stay in costume for so long?’ Well, people in her life have left her. Her father’s left her,” says Haj. “Love is hard, and letting ourselves be loved is not always the natural conclusion…We see Rosalind move into this autonomy when she is in men’s clothes.”

Both third-year MFA students in theater at UT, Tracie Merrill and Jon Levinson are thrilled to be playing the roles of Rosalind and Orlando, but only after some consideration, at least on Levinson’s part. “At first I wasn’t attracted to the role because I didn’t see the depth of Orlando’s struggle,” he says. “I got so caught up in his purity that I didn’t believe it. But in time it became a story of faith in love….The ways he expresses his love—through bad poetry and all that—to be able to believe in love that strongly, I came to admire that.”

Referring to Haj’s directorial decisions to shave off the play’s usual veneer of giddiness, Merrill says, “It can be played all hunky-dory, but that’s not how those things play out in your life. It is a great love story, but it’s an even better one when the human side is brought into it.”

In some instances, As You Like It encompasses the big picture, as its most famous line imparts, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” But what’s more enjoyable is that it also gets the small picture, capturing love’s little follies and that bit of raunchy humor never lost on Elizabethan audiences. “What’s great about Shakespeare is that there’s no bottom,” says Haj. “You just keep peeling back the layers, and you have to make choices about what aspects you’re going to explore.”

What: As You Like It