By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Sarah Bennett
By LP Hastings
By Jena Ardell
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
By Joel Beers
To update or not to update is the perennial Shakespeare question. An answer, of sorts, can be found in director Kevin Cochran's As You Like It, a Grove Theater Center production that reopens in Fullerton on Sept. 9. Rather than updating this play solely to make Shakespeare's settings "accessible" (Hamlet on a spaceship; King Lear in an insane asylum), Cochran's tweaking illuminates the language. The result: a play that may not look like traditional Shakespeare but is more thought-provoking than both museum Shakespeare and the goofy Shakespeare updates that are so in vogue these days.
On the surface, Cochran's concept isn't particularly novel. All he's done is move everything to the late 1960s. The action begins in and around a political seat of power and moves to the Forest of Arden, which has been transformed in this production into a forest commune of sorts for the politically and socially exiled.
But there is more to this concept than just a cute Austin Powers knockoff. Turning Shakespeare's Arden into a sanctuary for hippie intellectuals and pot-smoking artists strengthens one of Shakespeare's broadest themes: the conflict between nature and civilization, between individual freedom and social restraint. Using the experience of the '60s as a way to illustrate that conflict borders on the brilliant—even more so when, at play's happy end, all the exiled noble types get their estates back. None gives a second thought to staying in their idyllic forest. Like all good hippies turned good yuppies, they can't wait to get back to their stuff.
The plot, like most of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, is the least relevant aspect of As You Like It. A bunch of people get kicked out of their country by a usurping duke (a duchess, in this production, played by Terra Shelman, who doubles as the duchess of Arden) and retreat to the forest, where they fall in love with the wrong people, cross-dress, disguise themselves, fasten love poems to trees and smoke a lot of herb. Our heroine, Rosalind (the immensely likable Jane McFie), is one such outcast, as is her love interest Orlando (a commanding Charles Currier). Of course, there's the usual Shakespearean assortment of supporting characters, most of whom add very little, from clowns and shepherds to wrestlers and even a melancholy beatnik named Jacques (played in finely understated fashion by Daniel Sapecky).
As an intellectual enterprise, Cochran's concept flies. As entertainment, the production needs help. While not as rowdy or bawdy as other Shakespeare comedies, As You Like Itstill has a degree of liveliness required to make the rather fantastic happenings of this play work. Only Amy Griffin's Celia and Currier's Orlando really seem to be having a really fun time onstage.
The rather pedestrian costumes and set don't raise the vitality benchmark either. The only set pieces worth noticing are a cavalcade of stuffed animals of all shapes and sizes, dragged out onstage at seemingly every conceivable opportunity. Perhaps the plethora of stuffed animals is a tip from the director that all is not what it seems in the world of this play. But still, the constant sight of that hideous baboon from The Lion King in a Shakespeare play set in the late '60s is jarring in more than a few ways, none of them good.
Even with the flawed execution, this is a very intriguing mounting of a play that all too often feels routine and irrelevant. One hopes the next time a local director gets a wonderful idea to transport Shakespeare to the Old West or gangland Chicago, he or she takes a cue from Cochran: the concept doesn't matter nearly as much as the thought behind it.
As You Like It at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern, Fullerton, (714) 741-9555. Opens Thurs., Sept. 9. Thurs.-Sat., 8:15 p.m. Through Sept. 19. $20.50-$24.50.