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Will in the Streets

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AS YOU LIKE IT

Folio Theatre Company

For me, half the fun of Shakespeare is the period costumes--men in tights, women in gowns, women in tights disguised as men. I've seen too many companies update the look and setting of his plays with no other intent than to show off their own cleverness. But recently I was converted. Though it sounds gimmicky, Folio Theatre Company's interpretation of As You Like It as a struggle between modern corporate "kings" actually heightens the playfulness of Shakespeare's romp.

As You Like It revolves around a nonserious debate: Which is better, court life or rural life? Court life is portrayed as stifling, cruel, and violent. Orlando, who comes from a wealthy family, is treated like a commoner by his older brother, who's jealous of Orlando's inherent goodness and popularity. Two other brothers--both dukes--are also at odds, and the elder is exiled to Arden forest. By comparison, life in the forest is ideal. Commoners and royalty are equals, love blossoms, and friendship reigns. Of course, Arden is a utopia where people are freed from their usual roles and duties--a perfect jumping-off point for folly and fun. There Orlando runs from tree to tree, carving out poems of love about Rosalind, whom he met briefly before fleeing his brother's wrath. Rosalind, daughter of the exiled king, is fleeing her uncle's wrath when she runs into Orlando in Arden. Disguised as a wisecracking boy, she has a rare opportunity to get to know Orlando platonically and teach him how to treat a woman.

Folio Theatre's As You Like It--directed by Patrick New with costumes by Marguerite Picard--won me over only gradually. With everyone in the first act in business suits except the renegade Orlando, who wears jeans and a T-shirt, there's an air of formality that produces mixed results. A humorous opening bit in which four players march to an elevator effectively mocks the rigidity of the corporate world. That same stiffness makes it hard for sympathetic characters like Rosalind and her cousin Celia to break the ice with the audience, however. Dressed for business but sitting at a desk that looks like a vanity table, the two cousins lament the loss of Rosalind's father but determine to stir up some fun for themselves. Are these two idle ladies of the court, working women of the 90s, or the worst possible examples of nepotism?

Things become clearer in the second act. After being banished by her uncle, Rosalind escapes to Arden disguised in baggy pants, high-tops, and a baseball cap; Celia is dressed like a street person. In Folio's version, Shakespeare's woods and streams become the alleys and graffiti-sprayed brick walls of the city (graffiti art by Mario Casteneda), so there is no mistaking the dramatic irony in the Duke's overflowing praise for his home away from home: "And this our life, exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything." The Duke sees the woods/streets through rose-colored glasses because there he's safe from the dangers of an "evil court." But we can see clearly by the way his followers, dressed in rags, huddle for warmth around a garbage-can fire that Arden has its own discomforts and dangers.

In the third and fourth acts the play positively spins with the energized comic performances of three sets of lovers. Finding a nice metaphor in basketball, director New has the lead couple pace an early argument with increasingly forceful passes of the ball. Appropriately, India Whiteside's Rosalind leaves David A. Case's Orlando dizzy with confusion. Whiteside is equally believable as the wit who outwits Orlando again and again and as the softhearted lover who falls for him just as often. Glenn Swan as Touchstone, the office clown traveling with the cousins, and Deborah King as the lusty Audrey provide a swirling diversion as a far less cerebral couple--King is the most controlled and studied ditz I've ever seen. As Phoebe, who's enamored of Rosalind the boy, Jennifer Riskind takes her ditz over the top, while her suitor, Silvius, is played with quiet suffering by Gregory DeMatoff.

Folio comes close to tapping the potential in every character. The role of Jaques, the philosophizing bum, is a gem. Tim Burke makes him a good-looking but wholly self-consumed fool, puffing seriously on a cigarette and always looking off as if distracted by some abstract puzzle. Another actress might have missed the potential in Celia, who seems a mere second banana to the mischievous Rosalind, but Morgan Rowe makes us take notice of her--whether she's chiding her cousin or boldly setting her cap for Orlando's brother. We begin to think Celia's moxie may actually surpass Rosalind's.

Some viewers might be put off that Shakespeare's characters are talking about trees and farms and the players are acting before a brick wall and garbage can. For me, the contradiction between what I heard and what I saw made the characters all the more foolish, their passions and follies even more ridiculous, and As You Like It a satisfying comedy with an existential twist. As Jaques says, "All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players."

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