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Gainesville Sun

Friday, June 7, 2002

Shakespeare's 'As You Like It' at UF


Special to The Sun

Not to put too fine a point on it, but "As You Like It," written in 1599, may be the finest of Shakespeare's comedies. The plot so finely meshes sex and politics and nature and civilization, it only remained for the Bard to write "Hamlet" and question existence itself, which was Shakespeare's next act. He wrote "Hamlet" in 1600.

All of which can be daunting, and Judith Williams freely admits, "'As You Like It' is the only Shakespeare comedy I haven't directed." If fools rush in, Judith Williams does the opposite. She gives a measured response. Which seems appropriate to what is assuredly Shakespeare's most musical play.

It is so complex, so multi-layered, almost as if there are four plays going on at once.

In the center ring of the four-ring circus (see the problem?) are two governments. One court in power in Paris, the other dispossessed to the Forest of Arden. Moving belatedly from court to forest is one Rosalind, daughter of the banished Duke, whom Judith Williams terms "a female Hamlet."

"The role of Rosalind is for actresses what Hamlet is for actors," Williams says simply. Rosalind is all that, and in this production Rosalind is Kelley Guarneri, who offers a user-friendly approach to the role, addressing the audience forthrightly and her mates on stage as well.

Despite Rosalind's desperate duplicity, Guerneri plays Rosalind without guile. Her wit is natural and effervescent. It bubbles up like spring water.

As You Like It
WHERE: Constans Theater, on the UF campus
WHEN: At 8 p.m. today & Saturday
TICKETS: $12 public; $8 students, faculty, staff & seniors, through Ticketmaster

Shakespeare is up to gender-bending again in this play. Escaping to the forest means that Rosalind must disguise herself as a boy. It happens.

At once forbidding and tempting, "As You Like It" nevertheless would not be denied. The mood that has captured the flag is to act on one's purest desires, seize the moment. And so the University of Florida will present "As You Like It" later this month in Athens at the Marble Theatre, as well as the Anagyrios Amphitheater on the island of Spetses, after opening at Constans this weekend.

"In the wake of 9-11," acknowledges Williams, "international theater programs have really taken a hit. There's just so much fear and hesitance about traveling. When what the theater is about is reaching out. If we're going to be cowed into not performing, the terrorists have won."

"As You Like It" posits the Forest of Arden, which might strike you as a lot like Gainesville if you just took away all the cement. The inhabitants are all friends or friends of friends and they have managed a lifestyle that is peaceable and benign.

Judith Williams posits the reign of Louis XVI. That is, Williams is setting Shakespeare's play forward a mere two centuries to 1789. Surely, from what we have come to see as Shakespeare's prescience, that isn't a great leap. The world's greatest Shakespeare critic, Harold Bloom, maintains that Shakespeare invented human beings.

In the world of Louis XVI, the refined graces and exquisite self-consciousness of the rising second estate lend "As You Like It" the patina of fine art. It is beautiful to look at, lovely to listen to, and its shifting patterns are consistently engaging.

"Sweet are the uses of adversity," opines the banished Duke (Tom Lapke). There can be no pleasure without pain, nor love without indifference. But in the Forest of Arden, sweet reason reigns.

Rosalind is reason's sweetest flower, and her wisdom is worldly as well as enchanting. How else could she educate her own lover, Orlando, on this point? "Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love."

As Orlando, Kirt Taylor is a model of youthful strength and nobility of spirit, a little rough around the edges, which is just the way Rosalind likes it.

What makes Rosalind Hamlet's opposite number, the X to his Y, is that she is a genius just like him and just like us. That's why we like them both so much; we identify with them.

Rosalind enters the Forest of Arden in search of freedom. Along the way she teaches a man how to love, and she shows us how to be happy. "As You Like It" is not only the happiest of Shakespeare's plays, it is downright sublime.

"The Forest of Arden is a magical place," says Williams during a break in the technical rehearsal prior to opening. "People enter the Forest of Arden and they come away changed. The way of life that thrives within the forest counters all that pomp and circumstance of court with a beautiful humbleness."

The design element thus comes into play like another character, and not just a silent partner either.

Mozart's music was fashionable among the court, and with Marie Antoinette in particular. Among the dispossessed court, which has taken to the forest in "As You Like It," Mozart finds his mate in full-throated song, a sweet warbling welling out of nature at one with humankind.

"There is more music in this play than in just about any other Shakespeare wrote, I believe," Williams reflects. "But the challenge is that it is so fine, so abstract, that incorporating it intelligibly becomes a trick. So that the play doesn't just come to halt, and here's a song."

Instead, the music grows out of the plush stage pictures naturally like exotic flora and fauna.

"I'm fortunate in that I have Christina Gould as my designer," Williams says of her Southeastern Theatre Conference prize- winning designer.

The wide proscenium and imposing depth of the Constans stage present immediate obstacles to focus for any designer. That's before you even get to what the set looks like. You have to start with how you're going to get the audience to look at the set at all, there's so much stage.

The answer, in Gould's case, is a wispy flowering of fabric that casts delicate shadows everywhere and a rising elevation of action at center stage that commands attention when acted upon. All of it is light as air and built to travel. The beauty of it all is how well it jibes with the musical element and the painterly presentation of the lighter shades on the palette in the sumptuous period costumes designed by Tracy Ward.

Lighter shades are employed with the exception of Jaques, who is a malcontent among the dispossessed court and is Shakespeare's supreme cynic. In Williams' Louis XVI world, Jacques, dressed to the nines like the rest, only in black, is a seed of discontent that will blossom in the French Revolution.

Jacques wears his cynicism well, though it's not yet in fashion. He seems to know it soon will be. Clay Smith is right on the money as Jacques, who perceives that "All the world's a stage," but will not be reconciled to being merely a player.

Jacques and Touchstone, Shakespeare's most sophisticated clown, are a matched pair whose very wisdom is their foolery and vice versa.

Don C. Makowski endows Touchstone with a dainty silliness that allows him to lecture a shepherd on political economy while simultaneously pondering a romantic conquest.

"As You Like It" is a play about freedom, courage, and individuality, qualities that are really needed now," Williams affirms. "I'm proud of these young people for demonstrating those qualities themselves so purely."