By Ed Rampell
Gender Bender Bard on the Boards?
Some may regard Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It, as a mere merry, frothy confection. And to be sure, it is highly entertaining with crowd pleasing plot points, including one of theater’s happiest endings. But for those with discernment, beneath the surface there’s much more to Like than meets the eye. “If anyone dismisses it as insubstantial, they simply don’t know the play,” insisted director Rob Clare in an interview. Clare directed a production of the play, currently being performed by the Antaeus Theatre Company through September 10th.
Among other things, the play deals with gender identity and roles. One of its lead characters, Rosalind (Sally Hughes alternates with Julia Davis), is banished from court by her uncle, the usurper Duke Frederick (Brian Abraham alternates with John DeMita). Fleeing to the Forest of Arden for safety the tall Rosalind pretends to be a man named “Ganymede” (a reference to the Greek mythological character who took on a unique guise as he was abducted by the gods, and shared an erotic relationship with his captor).
In Clare’s “Director’s Note” he writes: “I’ve often heard it said that Shakespeare was ahead of his time… it seems to me that he was ahead of ours too, and we are still catching up.” A case in point: the same week Clare’s production opened, President Trump fired off a tweetstorm opposing transgender individuals serving in the military.
Cross-dressing is a recurring theme in William Shakespeare’s plays, reappearing in about a fifth of them, including: Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Viola in Twelfth Night, Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Imogen in Cymbeline. Of course, as Clare astutely pointed out cross-dressing and transgender transition are very different. Gender reassignment surgery, hormone treatments, etc., are not the same thing as wearing the “opposite” sex’s clothing and playing roles generally attributed to it. It is also important to note that a transgender individual may have an identity which may not fit so easily into “male” or “female” classifications. Nor do they necessarily choose to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.
For clarity’s sake: Rosalind primarily dresses as a man for safety’s sake. Yet, in a broad sense, cross-dressers and transgender people do share something in common: both exist outside of the narrowly prescribed societal norms traditionally attributed to conventional gender and sexual identities. In Like, Rosalind, while disguised as a man, is faux wooed by Orlando (Matthew Gallenstein alternates with Daisuke Tsuji), who uses him/her to practice his courtship skills on. Orlando does not seem to know that this is actually the female Rosalind he yearns for – at least, not consciously.
Nor does Phebe (Anna Lamadrid alternates with Erin Pineda), a shepherdess encountered in the sylvan glade who is likewise love struck by Rosalind in her male disguise. Shakespeare seems, on some level to be alluding to same sex attraction, not merely mistaken identity. This is made even more complicated by the fact that in Elizabethan theater all roles were actually played by males.
Although Clare doesn’t necessarily agree with this interpretation, he said, “Integral to the journey of these characters through this play is the question of their identity. ‘Who am I?’ is a question that is continually asked. ‘What do I feel? To whom am I attracted here? And what does this say about who I am?’
As the “#hollywoodsowhite” controversy indicates, the issue of color and casting is a significant, sensitive one. Antaeus’ current production of Like not only includes gender ambiguity, but also out-of-the-box ethnic casting for a work long regarded as part of the European canon.
Members of Antaeus’ sizable ensemble are multi-cultural. Despite the play being set in either England, or France, and some non-specific forest of exile, and as part of a decades-long habit of diverse casting in several theaters, Antaeus’ production features a black father (Duke Senior) and Caucasian daughter (Rosalind), plus black and white brothers, Oliver (played by on opening night by Wayne T. Carr) and Orlando. In alternate performances, Duke Senior is depicted by actress Eve Gordon. At the premiere Seoul-born Desiree Mee Jung played Celia, which she alternates with Caucasian actress Abigail Marks.
Said Clare, “We live in a multiracial society with a great mix of ethnicities within it. I personally see no problem at all with having a black and white guy being brothers onstage together. You can go figure out who their parents are, if that matters to you. It doesn’t matter to me – so I try to get the best actors in the room, I don’t care about what their color is.”
However, Clare clarified his stance, adding: “If we were doing a play like Othello, it would make a difference. I would then want one Black man onstage surrounded by white people because it’s integral to the themes and story of that play, that he be so isolated. Similarly, if we were doing The Merchant of Venice I would want a Jewish actor playing Shylock and I’d want the actors surrounding him to be non-Jewish, apart from the other designated Jews within that play. That’s because it’s important to the story of the play – otherwise, I simply cast the best actors I can find in the roles and simply do not care…” (Clare is currently preparing to direct Othello.)
Revising the Bard for 21st Century Auds
Clare called Shakespeare “a genius of his species” because of his peerless “insights into the human condition.” Perhaps, to this Elizabethan/Jacobean wordsmith, the soul and psyche had no gender or race. And Rosalind and Celia’s journey into the forest primeval may symbolize a return to the state of nature.
As Duke Senior says, explaining his appreciation of the forest:
“Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court? . . .
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it.”
Antaeus Theatre Company’s As You Like It runs through Sept. 10 at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Broadway, Glendale, CA 91205; (818)506-1983.
Note: All of the productions at Antaeus are partner cast, so there are two complete casts, with two different actors cast in every single role. They always come up with two names – usually found somewhere in the script. In this case, the two casts are “The Peascods” and “The Acorns.” Julia Davis and Sally Hughes share the role of Rosalind, with. Matthew Gallenstein and Daisuke Tsuji play Orlando, while Wayne T. Carr and Daniel Dorr portray his estranged brother, Oliver. Also in the two casts are Brian Abraham and John DeMita as Duke Frederick; Bernard K. Addison and Eve Gordon as Duke Senior; Tony Amendola and James Sutorius as Jaques; JD Cullum and Adam J. Smith as Touchstone; Steve Hofvendahl and Alberto Isaac as Corin; Paul Culos and Adam Meyer as Silvius; Anna Lamadrid and Erin Pineda as Phebe; Elyse Mirto and Karen Malina White as Audrey; John Bobek and Ian Littleworth as Amiens; Ben Atkinson and Luis Kelly-Duarte as Charles; Mitchell Edmonds and Tim Halligan as Adam; Janellen Steininger and Todd Waring as Martext; and Andy Stokan and Sedale Threatt, Jr. as Jacques de Boys.
You can read the review from Stage Raw here.