IT'S EASY TO take one of the greatest writers in the English language -- say, William Shakespeare -- and put him on a pedestal. After all it was a long time ago, and public memory just isn't that expansive. Separated by 400 years, thousands of miles and a whole evolution in language and cultural reference points (not to mention the need to graduate and get on with our lives), an informed appreciation for Shakespeare may be the least of our worries for lapsed education.
It's a gap further widened by the fact that Shakespeare in death is something quite apart from the life of a 16th-century playwright. Far from a struggling artist providing popular entertainment for an audience of varyingly literate theatergoers, Shakespeare has become a profession; a field of study; a body of work presumed accessible only through an esoteric understanding of history and literature.
Clearly the penetration of the Bard into the pop culture of the '90s has gone a long way toward breaking down some of those historic, academic barriers, returning Shakespeare to the dual status of literary figure and popular entertainer. After Kenneth "If You Bill It, They Will Come" Branagh got the ball rolling in 1989 with Henry V, a veritable industry one-upmanship led to an unlikely slew of Shakespeare blockbusters: Branagh and Emma Thompson in Much Ado About Nothing (1993); Laurence Fishburne in Othello (1995); Ian McKellen's Richard III (1995); Branagh in Hamlet (1996); Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as Romeo + Juliet (1996); Al Pacino's Looking for Richard (1996). So comfortable had we become with the material, we even took on the figure himself as fiction (in 1998's acclaimed Shakespeare In Love). On the down side, we ended up with last year's star-studded travesty of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Pre-Branagh, however, the predominant Shakespeare vehicle consisted of what we call, in the vernacular, "the hard stuff." That is, repertory theatre, or listening to an underpaid public-school teacher in a shabby cardigan interrupt to interpret every other line of the histories (the Henry plays; Richard III), tragedies (such as Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth), maybe a Titus Andronicus or Julius Caesar from the Roman plays, and of course, The Tempest (his last, in 1613). We're talking plays, in other words, that'd make anybody's head spin the first time around.
As You Like It, dear readers, is not such a play. Of Shakespeare's 37 major works, it nestles in his turn-of-the-century period of Middle Comedies: light-hearted plays that included A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Twelfth Night. The theaters of London, ordered closed from 1592-94 due to plague, had just reopened at the beginning of this period. One opinion is that in 1599, when As You Like It was written, ol' S. (then a middle-aged man at 31) needed a cash cow to woo people back into the seats, and employ every last one of his actors. Then as now, it turns out, the formula for pleasing the plebs was action/adventure and romantic comedy.
Now, I'm not saying this perennial crowd-pleaser isn't enjoyable. In fact, it's a hoot! It relies on an enormous cast of 36 lavishly costumed players, lots of physical comedy, bawdy humor, a near-constant stream of witty repartee (delivered with barely a pause or misplaced syllable by ATC's talented ensemble), and a spectacular set artfully illuminated and pleasingly contemporary in its architecture and engineering.
There's nothing to dislike about ATC's co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre. Director Sharon Ott keeps a brisk pace for this five-act, three-hour tour through the Forest of Arden, with a seamlessly edited script, lively choreography and gliding sets that anticipate scene changes without distracting.
New York actress Lise Bruneau assumes the dual role of love-struck Rosalind and bachelor-in-disguise Ganymede with a convincing, youthful exuberance. She and Julie Briskman Hall (cousin Celia and exiled counterpart Aliena), make an engaging and natural pair in their Arizona stage debut. Less remarkable but wholly reliable is William Mark Hulings' Orlando; while scene stealers Jeff Steitzer and Leslie Law, who delighted ATC audiences in Scapin, return as the droll Touchstone and his stout-hearted bumpkin, Audrey.
I'm simply inviting all who love or hate the idea of sitting through a Shakespeare play to consider: anyone who thinks the Bard was proud has never looked closely at As You Like It. Here, quite literally, he sings for his supper (music augmented between scenes by a score of original, Celtic-inspired compositions by Loreena McKennitt); and bars no holds (recall the wrestling match) or sexual innuendo. You can invoke scholarly metaphor about illusion and truth, and dress it up any way you like (we love the way those gauzy curtains catch the blue and rose glow of the wintry woods), just remember it is what it is...a silly, fairly low-brow spectacle about falling in love and very little else.
If still you doubt, you won't after the scenes in which Touchstone leaves nothing to the imagination delivering punch lines that variously ape masturbation and the mating of cats.
This has not always been the case, though. A more knowledgeable fan than I recalls issue-oriented interpretations from previous decades, with cross-dressing Rosalind posing as '70s commentary on gender roles; or separate New York productions set in the Shah's Iran and the Sandinistas' Nicaragua, spinning off the government-in-exile subtext for an '80s critique of U.S. foreign policy. Whew.
My thesis remains, however, that if we must trot this one out every few years (and I'm sure we must), ATC's treatment is the more laudable for its honesty, recreating as it does the same experience for a modern audience that Shakespeare clearly intended for his own.
There are but a few plays in which Shakespeare eschews depth to wow us with spectacle, and this is one of them. He gives us language that, while poetic, caters to a common vocabulary. Ott's and Richard White's text is right to cut extraneous detail and arcane words of interest only to scholars and purists. Lines like "I will physic your rankness," for example, become "I will cure your insolence." Similarly, foil turns to foul, hinds to hands, and good hussif to goddess. These are simple, spare changes that speed understanding without diminishing the sound or effect of the longer script. It's good editing.
Thus are we reintroduced to the memorable characters of resourceful Rosalind, her passionate suitor Orlando, the antics of Touchstone the fool, and the forgivably pretentious Jacques, among others too numerous to mention. All of this Shakespeare does, and presumably ATC too, with a subtle note of apology and a singular motive: to get you to come back for more, for "the hard stuff." You'll be ready. In the meantime, you'll have Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost to fall back on in 2000, and a new Othello simply entitled O...both coming soon to (movie) theaters everywhere.
As You Like It continues through Saturday, March 18, at the Temple of Music and Art Alice Holsclaw Theater, 330 S. Scott Ave. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday, with audio described/ASL interpreted performances on March 9 and 15. An informal discussion follows the March 15 matinee. Tickets are $20 to $32, available at the Dillard's and ATC box offices. Half-price rush tickets are available for one hour before curtain for all performances (subject to availability). For reservations and information, call 622-2823.