A liberal, tolerant government is overthrown. The revolutionary is the ultraconservative younger brother of the progressive leader who has opened a society previously dominated by their hard-liner father. The progressive leader is exiled into a wilderness where misfits, the homeless, and undesirables have previously been dumped. Making the most of the situation, the exiled leader tries to band his motley group into a new utopia, with freedom and understanding for all, while his brother institutes the repression of gays and women and replaces comedy and music with gladiatorial combat for entertainment.
This description comes not from our currently combustible world political scene but from a four-hundred-year-old comedy, As You Like It. Shakespeare clearly understood the cynicism of the verse from Ecclesiastes 1:9, “What has been will be again and what has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.” Yet unlike his fool Jacques, who cynically observes “All the world’s a stage, and the men and women merely players,” Shakespeare was not interested in merely pointing out the endless cycle of growth and retreat. For him, the wilderness into which his protagonists have been driven, is a magical doorway where each has the opportunity to face their elusive truth, battle their worst demons and once they have fully accepted who they are, find true love. The forest is a magical place, not because it makes things easy for its cast-offs but it serves as a laboratory where they can learn who they truly are. As an actor, steeped in theatre, Shakespeare truly understood the mutability of personality. He also understood that it is much more difficult for the comfortable to confront the troubling truths that can lead to real growth.
By updating this classic romantic comedy into the 21st century, and adding their wondrous score, Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery have made the gender confusion of the Rosalind/ Orlando story even more subtly complex. Turning Touchstone’s Audrey into Andy, and Phoebe’s Sylvius into Sylvia, gives each of the queer couples deliciously existential problems to solve. Shakespeare was fascinated with identity and used banishment as a tool to pry open the hearts of his humans so they could change. He knew instinctively that we are who we pretend to be, and our roles change throughout our lives. As I have been using the empathy muscle in rehearsals to try and channel Shakespeare and interpret his impulses, I have become convinced that he would have thoroughly enjoyed this musical version of his play.