The Guthrie is continuing their tradition in committing to producing a Shakespeare play every year and this year it’s time for a comedic one as opposed to the drama Romeo and Juliet for which they produced last year. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the biggest of Shakespeare fans. I’ve done my fair share of performing and working on a few and even working for the Great River Shakespeare Festival for some time. Now I will say though, I was so glad I attended the Guthrie’s production of As You Like It because it surprised me in more ways than one.
Like many Shakespearean comedies, the plot involves a multitude of characters who mistake people's identities and get involved in complicated love triangle. The plot features the resourceful and romantic Rosalind and her cousin Celia who escape from her uncles court and flee to a nearby forest. Accompanying them is their friend Touchstone as they run across countless of other characters in this light-hearted comedy of betrayal, disguise, utopia, and romance.
The beauty of Shakespeare is that it’s extremely flexible and versatile. Directors are invited to take the script and set it in any time period they wish. I’ve seen his shows in settings such as prisons, underwater and even as specific as Vichy France. Producers can think even more outside of the box when they play around with gender in casting the roles. This production of As You Like It did just that and it was spectacular.
This was by far the most inclusive and inter sectional Shakespearean show -- make that any show probably next to Head Over Heels -- I’ve ever seen. The production featured so many actors of color from Orlando to Phoebe and Hymen. Also the themes of queerness have never been more prevalent in a show that I’ve seen on this large of a company before. Touchstone was a lesbian and Jacques was gender queer. Jacques even used they/them pronouns.
As someone who identifies as gay myself, it was so refreshing to see a show that openly embraced these themes without having to make it such a focal point of the story. My friend Emma who attended the show with me, and also identifies as queer, and I talked about important this was after. The actors took these roles and played them the way they should be played and that is as normal people who lead semi-normal lives. The show didn’t focus on their sexual orientation or gender identity and how it’s been a struggle for so many years until they’ve finally overcome them. It’s just something about them and that is amazing to see.
Director Lavina Jadhwani, making her Guthrie debut, has the cast in a beautiful pacing that never makes the show feel longer than it should be. The actors kept me engaged through the whole show. Often with Shakespeare, the audience can become easily lost if they are not used to his text however they had my complete and undivided attention the entire time. I will say I also would have liked to seen more of a commitment to a fun dialect in this modern time. At times in the forest it would have been an amusing choice to overplay a Midwestern or northern accent for the Minnesota audience members. While they worked well as an ensemble, there were certainly some highlights in this cast that really sparkled.
Sarah Agnew played Touchstone which was refreshing to see as I’d never seen a female Touchstone before. Christiana Clark was elegant as Hymen, completely embodying Beyoncé as a pregnant gold and glitter goddess, but also hilarious as Corin. The role of Audrey can be easy at times to get laughs however Marika Proctor still found ways to make the audience laugh in new ways that weren’t so stereotypical for the role.
Other theater companies take note- THIS is the future of theater. It is gay. It is non binary. It is ability inclusive. It is female. It is not white. It is joyful and inclusive and representative of all.
- Emma VanVactor Lee
The two I could not get enough of were Andrea San Miguel and Sun Mee Chomet. Miguel, who played Celia, was tiny but fierce. Making the role almost more physical by playing so many levels that I had never seen in the role before. I wish Phoebe was a larger role because Chomet committed to her perfectly. Chomet is one to watch in this performance as she takes the small role but manages to make the biggest impact through her side splitting humor.
I’ve seen a few productions directed by Angela Timberman but I’ve never seen her act and I will say that her performance as Jacques was clever, smart and right on the nose. Max Wojtanowicz left me grinning ear to ear every time he came on stage as either Le Beau or Silvius. He has quickly become one of my favorite local actors as well. As lovers, I really didn’t see or feel the chemistry between Jesse Bhamrah, who played Orlando, and Meghan Kreidler, who played Rosalind. It was implied many times through sound and light cues however it just wasn’t there for me. As individuals, these actors shined on their own accord.
Shakespeare can be daunting at first if you aren’t familiar with it. The Guthrie manages to take this romantic comedy and make it very palatable for new comers and still stimulating and entertaining for fans. Their commitment to not only producing this play but making it so diverse and inclusive makes it easily one of the best Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen.
As You LIke It plays at the Guthrie Theater now through March 17.