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As You Like It.

Over the past two years, drag, specifically men dressing up as women, has gone beyond its usual after-hours venues and been welcomed into the mainstream. In movies ranging from the family favorite Mrs. Doubtfire to the art house hit, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, sympathetically portrayed cross dressers have pushed the limits of traditional gender boundaries. However, no drag-themed work has more effectively confronted the myth of sexual stereotypes nor so exuberantly extolled the virtues of gender-play than the all-male production of Shakespeare's As You Like It, recently presented at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Majestic Theater. With a minimum of camp, this As You Like It, produced by the British theatre company Cheek by Jowl, creates a world in which gender is as easily adopted or abandoned as any other costume.

Cheek by Jowl, founded in 1981 by director Declan Donnellan and his longtime companion, designer Nick Ormerod, seems to have discovered the true essence of As You Like It. This production, using minimal set pieces and precision staging, has an irrepressibly joyous spirit. The same-sex casting unleashes the play from conventional expectations and makes explicit the point that gender is ultimately unimportant in human relationships. The production highlights the play's underlying values of romantic love, tolerance, and the importance of individual freedom.

The production immediately establishes the connection between the world and the theater and makes a parallel construction between gender and other personal choices. When the play begins, all the actors are scattered across the stark white stage dressed identically in white shirts, black pants, and suspenders. As the first words in this production (from the midplay speech) are spoken, "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players," the two actors who will play the roles of Celia and Rosalind cross the stage and stand apart. When they next appear, they are dressed in full length gowns, but Celia's tasteful coil doesn't attempt to hide the actor's bald spot and nothing is done to alter Rosalind's short hair. Throughout the play, the actors' biologically determined male attributes exist side-by-side with their perfectly observed behavior as women; clearly, gender is simply a choice.

Further attesting to both the production's celebration of theatricality and its political point of debunking the value of such societally-determined attributes as gender, race, and even age, are the creative casting choices employed. The elderly servant Adam, for example, is double-cast as the winsome blonde shepherdess Audrey. The usurping Duke and the banished Duke are played by the same white actor. His niece/daughter Rosalind is played by black, six-foot tall Adrian Lester. The ease with which these actors transform themselves and the degree to which the audience accepts these characters, compellingly illustrates how ultimately artificial such categories are.

Theatrically demonstrating the rigidity of social constraints, this production draws a particularly sharp contrast between the world of the court and life in the Forest of Arden. The court of Duke Frederick is exclusionary and carefully striated. Class differences are highlighted and the violence underlying human relationships in "civilization" is made viscerally explicit. When the play moves to the Forest of Arden, indicated simply with hanging green ribbons, the contrast is immediately apparent. The Duke, as he placidly extols the benefits of forest living, is warmly caressed by this fellow compatriots. The forest allows a free-play of sexual expression strictly prohibited in the court.

The pansexuality which seems to characterize the inhabitants of this production's Forest of Arden injects a level of erotic interest in virtually every scene. The scenes between Celia and Rosalind, for example, are charged with sexual tension, at least for Celia. Her unrequited love for Rosalind invigorates even scenes in which she barely speaks. Concurrently, the shepherd Corin's lust for Celia adds nuances missed in most productions. Jacques, often played as simply a misanthrope, here is a man longing for love but unable to achieve it. Even he, in this romantically-intoxicated production, ultimately finds a mate with a literally deus-ex-machina device and ends up dancing contentedly with the God Hymen at the marriage feast.

The play's message of tolerance is taught simultaneously to the audience and Orlando by Rosalind, the true emotional heart of the play. As portrayed by Adrian Lester, she is a tremendously passionate and caring woman who wants to be loved by Orlando for who she really is. In the forest when she convinces Orlando to woo her in her disguise as Ganymede in place of his beloved Rosalind, the actual situation is that of a man playing a woman playing a man playing a woman. The ambiguity of this situation is exploited in a number of sharply defined moments most clearly in the final scene when Orlando momentarily rejects Rosalind as she offers herself to him. His eventual acceptance of her for what she chooses to be is painfully poignant and serves as the final test of the lessons he's been taught.

This As You Like It, suffused with the joy of theatre, life and love truly embodies the meaning of its title suggesting that an easy tolerance is the way to fully appreciate the pleasures of human experience.

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Title Annotation:Gay & Lesbian Queeries; Brooklyn Academy of Music's Majestic Theater, Brooklyn, New York
Author:Laris, Katie
Publication:Theatre Journal
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:May 1, 1995
Previous Article:Up Against It.
Next Article:Twelfth Night.

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