Review: There’s a lot to like in Fresno State’s ambitious ‘As You Like It’
Author’s note: After finishing this review, I clicked on my colleague Heather Parish’s take on the same production and thought it was extremely well done. I encourage you to read both mine and hers. (Her local blog is titled “What’s My Call Time.”) The more perspectives on theater, the better!
I made a vow a couple of months ago to stop reading this country’s current political situation into every piece of theater I see. But I keep breaking my word. I’m going to continue that trend, if just for a few paragraphs, when it comes to Fresno State’s engaging and smartly staged production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”
No, I don’t see the crass and manipulative Duke Frederick (R.L Preheim) as a stand-in for Donald Trump. (The Duke is the usurper who tosses first his brother and then his niece out of his realm, imagined in this production by director Kathleen McKinley as a shiny, upscale health and fitness club — though he certainly would be the type to install gold toilets in the locker rooms.) Nor is the grumpy Jacque (the famed “melancholy” noble who gets to deliver Shakespeare’s even more famed “All the world’s a stage” speech, played by Brooke Aiello), who wanders around the forest grumping about this and that, anything akin to, say, a curmudgeonly Bernie Sanders.
Pictured above: Anthony teNyenhuis and Evangelia Pappas play Orlando and Rosalind in ‘As You Like It.’ Photo: Fresno State
And as for Shakespeare’s “fool,” Touchstone (played with vim and a swish by Dylan Mark Murphy), I don’t even want to go there, though there are several members of Congress who could leap into the role.
In other words, I didn’t draw a strong parallel between any of the characters and the cast of America’s own bewildering political drama unfolding before us.
Instead, what fascinated me was the perceptions that the urbanites have of the rural folks in the play, and vice versa. Talk about Blue vs. Red. It’s as if each were organized into focus groups and asked to describe how the other half lives, and those stereotypes are what float the concept of the play. The fitness-club world feels uptight, pretentious, preoccupied with appearance and social standing, and sort of creepily antiseptic. (I could practically smell the faintest aroma of sweat subsumed by prodigious amounts of cleaning solution.) The forest of Arden, on the other hand, to which the banished courtiers flee, is Hicksville, U.S.A. The average IQ tumbles 20 points at the perimeter. There are dullard shepherds, goofy goatherds and a strong suggestion that the forest inhabitants dive into some pretty small gene pools to copulate merrily and often.
One moment stands out to me: Orlando (Anthony teNyenhuis), a Bluester if you’ve ever seen one, also ends up in the forest, banished by Duke Frederick as well. (Yes, he has a lot of company. It feels like a dot-com company decided to flee Silicon Valley to Idaho and drag its reluctant employees there.) When Orlando first runs into a forest dweller, he pulls a knife. Because, obviously, it’s a savage place. We’re trained to fear what we don’t know.
Full disclosure: “As You Like It” is not one of my favorites of the Bard’s comedies, and I didn’t walk away from this production with the uplifted spirit and keen sense of humanity that I have from some other McKinley-directed Shakespearean outings in the past. (Will I ever be able to forget her “Midsummer Night’s Dream”?) There’s a sense of forced fun at times instead of genuine hilarity. Still, this version is so crisply conceived and cordially enacted that I found it quite pleasant.
This being a comedy, of course, we don’t wallow in bad vibes for long. “As You Like It” is chock full of romance, cross-dressing, mistaken identities, boisterous subplots, silly asides and an ebullient tone. McKinley does some fun, tweaky stuff — gender-neutral casting for Jacque, transforming the dim country vicar into a rabbi — and instills a generous sense of musical lushness to the proceedings. This is a production that is precise but can still feel loose and free-spirited.
VIDEO: THE MUNRO REVIEW INTERVIEWS THE STARS OF ‘AS YOU LIKE IT’
Acting-wise, teNyenhuis continues his local ascent as a consummate performer who finds the nuance in difficult roles. He imbues his Orlando with a good-natured sense of righteousness and charm, and if he can seem like a complete idiot for not recognizing that his true love, Rosalind (Evangelia Pappas), is dressed like a man right in front of him, well, that’s how Shakespeare wrote him.
Pappas, meanwhile, is spirited and plucky, as any good Rosalind should be, though in one of the production’s few letdowns, I didn’t feel much chemistry between the two leading lovers. Among the large cast, standouts include Alexis Elisa Macedo’s breezy Celia (the bad Duke’s daughter), Erik David Olson and Kenia Morales as a not-so-perfectly matched shepherd couple, a sweet-voiced Teya Juarez as a happily transplanted forest dweller, and an amiably memorable Rodolfo Robles Cruz as Corin, another musical shepherd. Aiello plays Jacque less grumpy than I’ve seen him before, and I think she does a wonderful job presenting the character as an effective reality check on the “pastoral perfection” of rural life.
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And Murphy, as Touchstone, bets the farm and then some on a rousing, full-on-clown gale of a performance. It’s really something to behold.
Production-wise, I enjoyed Elizabeth Payne’s costumes, especially among the forest inhabitants, who are decked out in enough expensive looking vests to stock an REI store. Regina Harris’ lighting design is warm and enticing in the forest and shiny-bright in the gym scenes. And Josh Montgomery’s choreography for the wedding dance sends the audience out in a genial mood.
Now, let’s go back to the Blue vs. Red theme I broached before. Does “As You Like It” have a lesson for us today for political amity in the midst of unmitigated legislative strife? I’m not sure it does. With the downfall of the bad Duke and the opportunity for his banished citizens to take leave of the forest, the whole thing seems like we’ve spent an evening watching the Blue Side slumming for a bit. It’s as if everyone just took a bike tour through rural Appalachia before returning to their $3,000 exercise cycles at the local gym.
But at least the two groups are talking, right? And eating together — and singing, flirting, joking, squabbling, etc. Perhaps that’s the first step in the Battle of the Primary Colors: going camping together. Add a little green to that Blue and Red.