A new love interest enters the stage, the lighting instantly flashes to a romantic shade of bright pink, and “Careless Whisper” blares over the sound system. The character slowly gyrates for a moment, and the two destined lovers lock eyes.
Maybe this type of moment is cliché, but at least there’s no chance of missing who’s in love with whom in BareStage Productions’ “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare. And that’s a good thing, because the comedy’s numerous love triangles can be impossible keep track of.
The plot of “As You Like It” is anything but straightforward. To simplify it, imagine “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Twelfth Night” got together for a steamy evening of bam-bam in the ham and conceived a child. That child would have sparks of both its parents — forest antics, gender swapping, lots of misplaced affection and a wedding finale.
“You don’t see that when you read it,” quipped one member of the audience, watching as one character spreads their legs wide just as another character remarks on “sluttishness.”
It’s true — it’s not until a Shakespeare production is brought to life that its nuance can truly be appreciated. Unspoken subtext is exposed, moments of nonverbal humor revealed, and fresh interpretations are allowed to blossom. It’s this richness that makes Shakespeare’s works still so delightful to watch when performed live, even centuries after they were written.
As the ways in which we communicate constantly evolve, so does our sense of humor — our comedic timing and the language we use to grab laughs is never the same as it was just a few years before. It can, therefore, be more than a little challenging to make Shakespearean humor resonate with a contemporary audience. Hell, it’s hard enough to make sure audiences can even follow the plot. Modern productions work around the language barrier by employing physical comedy, heavy-handed inflections and airtight pacing.
BareStage clearly knows its way around these techniques — plenty of jokes sit well, both within the original lines and from the unscripted moments peppered throughout. But not every bit lands as well as it should. Without giving too much away, a quick Kotex joke and a Jewish dance number elicit more confused chuckles than they do uproarious laughter. Regardless, BareStage should be applauded for its ambition in modernizing 17th-century humor.
Shakespearean comedy isn’t the only thing BareStage subverts in its production — the narrative gets its fair share of updates as well. While they may offend Shakespeare purists, many of these updates add significant value to the production. The original script is burdened with disingenuous, spontaneously formed romances, but the cast members of “As You Like It” took it upon themselves to craft a new love story between Touchstone (Melanie Abrams) and Jacques (Ada Chang).
While this relationship may be fairly tertiary to the central plot, it provides the most compelling, organic dynamic within the entire production. It’s also at the heart of the play’s numerous musical numbers, which are driven in turn by the pair’s charming voices.
Even with new stories, several songs and a jam-packed set of comedic moments, the show eschews Shakespeare’s original run time of three hours, clipping along and wrapping after a brisk 95 minutes. Its intermission is somewhat oddly placed, with a speedy second act following a rather lengthy first act, but this hardly impacts your overall impression of the production. The cast’s energy is palpable in every scene, and this level of focus does wonders for the show’s momentum.
“As You Like It” has a lot going for it, providing a great cut of the original script, a unique set of musical numbers and a charming cast. But while there’s nothing alarmingly wrong with any element of “As You Like It,” there’s also nothing that really makes it stand out. It delivers what it needs to — laughter — and rarely fumbles, but perhaps that’s a testimony to a less obvious flaw: playing it safe.
“As You Like It” is familiar, comfortable and plenty enjoyable — yet it misses opportunities to truly innovate and to genuinely surprise its audience. Still, for a cast and crew whose main objective was to make sure audiences came away with an appreciation for just how fun Shakespeare can be — it was a mission accomplished.
“As You Like It” runs through March 11 at the Cesar Chavez Student Center’s Choral Rehearsal Hall.
Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].