Center Stage's 'As You Like It' takes Shakespearean gender-bending a step further

Center Stage has updated "As You Like It" with an all-female cast and an abbreviated script.

The lights in the theater go down. The modern office that is this play's royal court recedes. Life-size birch trees drift down from overhead to plant themselves on the Astroturf-covered stage. A tent pops up.

So far, it is your average contemporary take on a classic, Shakespeare's "As You Like It."

Then a large band of women—all women—enter in flowing skirts and jackboots, carrying lawn chairs, backpacks, and acoustic guitars as they croon "come hithers" and set up camp in what looks like a scene from the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival.

On this Sunday afternoon in January, Center Stage is in tech rehearsals for its all-female version of "As You Like It." This new adaptation of the play, running now through Feb. 14, takes a script that is already rife with playful gender-bending and flips it on its head—or, depending on how you look at it, honors Shakespeare's original intent more than most productions. (Remember, in Shakespeare's time, all the roles were played by men so in this play, when the characters Rosalind and Celia dressed up as men, they were really male actors playing women who were pretending to be men.)

"This play is the most gender-bending of all of them in Shakespeare's canon so it is a natural invitation to explore what gender roles and identity mean," says director Wendy Goldberg, explaining that she and Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah were brainstorming last year for a way to make this 400-year-old play contemporary and relevant. "We're living in a moment where all these things are being questioned, the sense of self, who you are and how gender plays in this." Women in the play are playing women and women are playing men—in other words, none of the characters have been altered from the original, "but gender becomes more fluid and is not a question, not something that we become fixated on, but rather something that becomes invisible." Goldberg says the focus is on storytelling and the story itself. "The idea is that we are living in this fluid time, our production will reveal that."

Of course, traditionalists regularly get their knickers in a knot at the thought of anyone messing with Willie the Shake. (The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2015 Play On! project where 36 playwrights were commissioned to adapt Shakespeare scripts over a three-year period, for example, is much heralded as a triumph of modernization, but still has very narrow parameters about cuts, reminds writers that they are not creating adaptations, and insists they "limit their efforts to updating the more antiquated language in the plays.") But even at the U.K.'s Globe Theater, newly appointed artistic director Emma Rice told The Guardian last week that she is hunting for ways to enliven the plays. "I have tried to sit down with Shakespeare but it doesn't work. I get very sleepy and suddenly I want to listen to The Archers [a BBC radio soap]."

Across Europe, directors are playing with gender-swapped casting—and this has deep roots in the U.S., as well. The avant-garde company Mabou Mines, for which I used to work as company manager, famously cast Ruth Maleczech as King Lear in 1990 and sent ripples of outrage (The Times called it "sophomoric") and accolades (Maleczech won an OBIE for her performance) when it set the story in backwoods Georgia. And Phyllida Lloyd did an all-female version of "Julius Caesar" at New York's St. Ann's Warehouse in 2013. Other all-women companies have also tackled Shakespeare. Still, it's uncommon—and arrives with its own set of challenges.

For example, what does it mean to be male and how does one explore that without resorting to broad stereotypes? "They are playing at being men, but there is a range of what that means," says Goldberg. "This play is all about how do you take those qualities on that you have perceived to be traditionally masculine and then subvert them?"

"I'm not interested in the complete disguise of women trying to play stereotypically male," she says. "I think that's strange and I don't live in a binary world like that and I don't want this production to do that." She is exploring "a range of gender" that she sees as quintessentially modern and is confident this will resonate with contemporary audiences. "I don't think it's going to be confusing. It's reflective of the world we live in right now."

Directing Shakespeare is a relatively new experience for Goldberg. She is the artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at Connecticut's Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and has spent most of her career working with playwrights to develop new plays. Given this background, it seemed natural to approach "As You Like It" with the same freedom to adapt or "fix" a play so that it worked. "Adaptation, changing constantly, that's familiar territory for me," she says.

It doesn't hurt that in the process, she is giving female actors a slew of good roles that would ordinarily be denied them. The cast of 18 women includes a core ensemble of 12 professional actors and six Towson University students in supporting roles. The show takes place at Towson University's Center for the Arts (as does Center Stage's next production, "Detroit '67") while the theater's North Calvert Street home undergoes a massive renovation. The partnership with the university is a two-way street, Goldberg explains, and gives students hands-on, practical experience working closely with a professional company while allowing Center Stage to mount a large Shakespeare production, often prohibitively expensive for regional theaters. (Disclosure: My husband teaches in Towson's theater department but has nothing to do with this production or the partnership with Center Stage.)

Still, Goldberg says, they had to cut a bunch of characters as they wrestled with the script. This wasn't mere expediency; it helped the structure of the play, she says. Our expectations about dramatic structure have shifted in last 400 years, she says, so they have taken this "unwieldy" script and "shifted things around to make sure they are streamlined and balanced."

For his part, Center Stage Associate Artistic Director and Director of Dramaturgy Gavin Witt took delicious pleasure in having a whack at Shakespeare's script, describing it as "hugely satisfying." "My dad has thing when he's talking about mowing a lawn that hasn't been trimmed in a while and how satisfying that is," Witt says, explaining that he similarly loved the sensation of trimming "As You Like It" into well-groomed tidiness.

Over the past few months, he took multiple passes at the play, first restructuring it to play up the tension between the court scenes and the countryside scenes. Then he eliminated some extraneous characters, scenes, and monologues. (For example, he says, he cut Orlando's brother who, like some character in a Monty Python skit pops up out of the blue at the end because the rushed playwright—or riffing improv team—is barreling toward an absurdly improbable conclusion.) The play went from its usual running time of more than three hours to two hours and six minutes. "It starts to have its own reality," he says, explaining that at one point during the rehearsal process he returned to the original script to hunt for something and thought, "My God, how different it had become."

Witt, who studied Shakespeare as an undergrad at Yale and then again as a grad student at the University of Chicago, has worked on more than a half-dozen Shakespeare productions over the years and likens this adaptation work to "driving stick [shift]." It comes pretty naturally after years of practice, he says, and "it's pretty easy to pick up the play and thin the underbrush."

This should not be confused with feeling jaded about the task. Witt, observing the tech rehearsal of "As You Like It," enthusiastically whispers an engrossing back-story of British socio-historical events against which the play unfurled. "What is it to be a man? What is it to be a woman?" he asks, noting that these two central questions in the play reflected a "blossoming anxiety about performance of gender in the 1600s when pamphlets about manly women and womanly men—particularly with the way dress was evolving—were being circulated." Scenes that gave a nod to that anxiety stayed but in the next round of trims, he lopped out a hoard of speeches. As with Shakespeare's other comedies there are "these spiraling, embellishing flourishes just there to display some arcane Latin or puns that don't move anything forward." They landed on the cutting-room floor as Witt simultaneously messed with the monologues a bit, leaving the language intact but dividing them into dialogue. When he needed a bit of extra banter for a scene, he pulled some snatches from other Shakespeare comedies. Then he went micro, to the level of word choice, subbing in, say, "clothes" for the more archaic "hose."

"I tried to observe verse and meter, staying in the same sounds and ideas," he says, "but we've been singularly unprecious [with the script]." Witt says he cast aside the notion in this adaptation that this was about "protecting some archival things" in order to go after "something alive in the texture of the play that accessed our anxieties and yearnings."

"I joke that I've wreaked havoc," Witt says, still whispering as the house lights go on and the stage manager calls for a 10-minute break in the show's tech rehearsal. "But it's not about thinking we know better than Shakespeare. We think it's about honoring contemporary, modern sensibilities."

"As You Like It" runs through Feb. 14 at the Mainstage Theatre at Towson University. For more information, visit centerstage.org.

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