Jen Kochaver, Features Editor
The classic Shakespeare comedy “As You Like It” is showing at the Guthrie, just down the road from Augsburg, now. A tale of love (four times over), rejection and redemption, the Guthrie brought modern and musical flare to the play, creating a rom-com-esque story set primarily in the snowy woods of the Midwest.
This play is filled to the brim with love as we follow four couples—Rosalind and Orlando, who fall in love almost immediately but find themselves separated by exile and disguise; Silvius and Phoebe, two shepherds who don’t quite see eye-to-eye on their compatibility; Touchstone and Audrey, a city fool and country fool brought together by the forest; and, though not brought together until the show’s final scenes, Celia and Oliver, two young people both trying to find identity outside of their fathers’ shadows.
Director Lavina Jadhwani’s vision for retelling this classic story leaned heavily towards the modern. The play opens with the characters partying at a high-end club, establishing social rank to the audience implicitly through the ease with which characters are allowed in. Very quickly, almost all main characters are banished from their city into the Forest of Arden, an inhospitable and dangerous place far away from home. Jadhwani brought the play close to home for the audience and modeled the forest closely after the wilderness of the Midwest.
The Guthrie advertised “As You Like It” as “the most musical of Shakespeare’s plays,” and the show lives up to its promise. With Shakespeare’s lyrics set to new original music by Broken Chord, the lords exiled to the Forest of Arden serenade the Duke and pass the time in the bitter cold while accompanying themselves onstage like the Duke’s own personal Mumford and Sons.
As has become a conscious Guthrie norm, the cast of “As You Like It” featured plenty of intentional diversity. The role of Touchstone, traditionally a male character, was cast as a woman, introducing a lesbian romance and eventual marriage to the show. The role of Jaques, again traditionally a man, was portrayed by actress Angela Timberman as a gender-ambiguous lord defined more by melancholy than anything. Hymen, the Greek god of marriage who appears suddenly and mystically at the end of the play to wed the four couples, became not only a goddess but a goddess in the image of our Lord and savior Beyoncé, appearing on-stage, pregnant, dressed in a likeness to the famous photos of Beyoncé during her second pregnancy.
Of the many romances in this show, the almost-relationship between Phoebe and Silvius is both the hardest to root for and the hardest to make work in any modern performance. Silvius spends the entire play pining after Phoebe, a woman who spends the entire play very vocally expressing her lack of interest in Silvius. The message that a man who is persistent enough will always “get the girl,” a sentiment still fairly prevalent today, is antithetical to healthy relationships. The Guthrie obviously tried as hard as they could to make the relationship translate (Jadhwani describes Phoebe’s agreeing to marry Silvius as “suddenly [realizing] he’s the guy she always goes to after a hard day’s work,” though I didn’t quite feel that as an audience member), but there was only so much that could be done.
From Rosalind’s mistaken identity due to drag to the humor of Touchstone the fool to the almost-slapstick portrayal of Celia’s naïveté, this show has a lot of goofiness baked into itself. But despite that, or perhaps because of that, the serious moments of revelation and reunion are moving, inspiring a sense of optimism in the audience that love and reconciliation can win out in the end.
If you’d like to see this charming celebration of the many paths to romantic love yourself, “As You Like It” is running at the Guthrie until March 17th.
This article was originally published in the Feb. 22, 2019 issue.