Cal Shakes’ ‘As You Like It’ Evokes Ghost Ship and Tent Cities

Run, run, run to another world. (L to R) Rosalind (Jessika D. Williams) and Orlando (Patrick Russell) find love in a warehouse utopia while the delighted Celia (Maryssa Wanlass) watches in Cal Shakes' production of 'As You Like It' by William Shakespeare.

Run, run, run to another world. (L to R) Rosalind (Jessika D. Williams) and Orlando (Patrick Russell) find love in a warehouse utopia while the delighted Celia (Maryssa Wanlass) watches in Cal Shakes' production of 'As You Like It' by William Shakespeare. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Like many Shakespearian comedies, As You Like It begins in discord and works it way to a tense happiness. More so than the tragedies, these rueful takes on love’s travails feel emblematic of the times, or at least our most hopeful version of them. Director Desdemona Chiang’s class-conscious meditation on this run-away-to-the-forest-and-slip-into-a-better-world fantasia at California Shakespeare Theater is fascinating, though uncertainly executed.

We begin in the court of Duke Frederick, who has wrested political control from his elder brother, Duke Senior, both played by James Carpenter with his customary élan and precision. The fissure in the first political family seems to have nestled its way into all the relationships of the kingdom, from the best to the worst. On the side of the best, there’s Rosalind and her cousin Celia, who adore each other despite the rift between their fathers; on the worst, look to Orlando and his brother Oliver, who are in a battle over the younger’s rightful standing in the world.

In the foreground Rosalind (Jessika D. Williams) approaches Orlando (Patrick Russell) who is preparing to fight Charles (Jorma Tagatac), a professional wrestler with a mean streak in Cal Shakes' production of 'As You Like It' by William Shakespeare.
In the foreground Rosalind (Jessika D. Williams) approaches Orlando (Patrick Russell) who is preparing to fight Charles (Jorma Tagatac), a professional wrestler on a mission to maim him in Cal Shakes’ production of ‘As You Like It’ by William Shakespeare. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

We sense the natural nobility of Rosalind and Orlando, and so when for various reasons they’re both forced into exile, it feels unjust but also a wild opportunity for new freedoms. And that’s where Chiang takes a daring gambit: the forest of Arden, which serves as the domain of Duke Frederick’s brother, and the place where our daring exiles find themselves upon being banished, is not a forest at all; it’s a derelict warehouse.

The transformation of the set from the verdant Arcadia of the court to the industrial landscape of Oakland — both displaced and bohemian — is a breathtaking transposition. The production feels like it’s going to take off with it. The most beautiful scene of the evening is when the exiled Duke speaks to his lords of the joys of living outside the court: “Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile/Hath not old custom made this life more sweet/Than that of painted pomp?”

(L to R) The exiled duke (James Carpenter) presides over his warehouse crew (Craig Marker, Lisa Hori-Garcia, and William Thomas Hodgson) as Orlando (Patrick Russell) bullies the dreamy Jaques (Jomar Tagatac) in Cal Shakes' production of 'As You Like It' by William Shakespeare.
(L to R) The exiled duke (James Carpenter) presides over his warehouse crew (Craig Marker, Lisa Hori-Garcia, and William Thomas Hodgson) as Orlando (Patrick Russell) bullies the dreamy Jaques (Jomar Tagatac) in Cal Shakes’ production of ‘As You Like It’ by William Shakespeare. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Well, that’s the question of the day, isn’t it? And you can’t help but think of the Ghost Ship and its many doubles, the tented homeless encampments under 980, and all the provisional communities that find living in the court of the Bay Area impossible. And so people seek out communities that are both more precarious and fulfilling. Concepts like these often feel tacked on, conceits without resonance. It’s amazing how easily the play slides into Chiang’s vision of the utopia that can be found in a dystopia.

But for all the thoughtfulness of the ideas, this As You Like It fails to achieve the verve and life it promises. Many of the problems come from Chiang’s inability to sustain any kind of dramatic momentum from scene to scene. It’s not so much how the scenes play out, but rather the transitions that are a problem. The few that do work — a rapid-fire costume change that takes us from the exiled Duke’s warehouse to his brother’s chambers in a flash of an instant — are striking and you wonder why the rest of the production is so lack.

You want the force of Chiang’s insights to suffuse every aspect of the play, and yet nothing feels properly put together. The visual field is muddied, and the stage is at one and the same time too cramped and too large. In a clever updating, Orlando spray paints Rosalind’s name all over the warehouse set. Yet Patrick Russell, who’s terrific in the role, can’t seem to navigate the set to make the grand gestures necessary for his character and the play. It’s a wonderful idea, yet it falters under unsure execution.

Rosalind (Jessika D. Williams) steals Orlando's (Patrick Russell) spray paint from him.
Rosalind (Jessika D. Williams) steals Orlando’s (Patrick Russell) spray paint from him. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Shakespeare’s realism is vast and supple. It contains not just grand visions of the world, but also the granular details of actual life. You can feel this production opening the door to a world we haven’t quite seen and connections we haven’t quite made. But just as surely, it shies away from all the sinew and grit that might have made every last bit of it splendidly real.

California Shakespeare Theater’s ‘As You Like It’ runs through Sunday, Jun. 18 at Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. For tickets and information click here.

Cal Shakes’ ‘As You Like It’ Evokes Ghost Ship and Tent Cities 2 June,2017John Wilkins

Author

John Wilkins

John Wilkins is the theater critic for KQED Arts. He was the Artistic Director of Last Planet Theatre for ten years and teaches in the Writing and Literature program at CCA. Follow him on Twitter @johnrwilkins2

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