Impact Theatre redresses Shakespeare in ‘As You Like It’

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Impact Theatre’s latest contemporary revamp is William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” The play follows a familiar Shakespearean scenario. Boy likes girl. Girl likes boy. Girl is forced to disguise herself as a boy for some strange, ungodly reason. Everyone starts to fall in love with the wrong person. Chaos ensues.

This production of “As You Like It” premiered last Thursday at La Val’s Subterranean, a theater space beneath La Val’s Pizza that Impact Theatre calls home. For those of you who know a thing or two about the Bard’s classic romantic comedy, you might be a little surprised by this version — Celia is a sassy gay man, the two dukes are duchesses, Jacques is also a female, the Forest of Arden is a rural small town based in Northern California and most of the scenes take place in a bar. There is also some karaoke-ing, WWE-esque wrestling, vlogging and a Lady Gaga reference thrown into the mix as well. The reinvention epitomizes modernity through context while retaining the true essence of the original script and does so in a most comically pleasing way.

Gender-bending is nothing new to Melissa Hillman, a UC Berkeley alumna and the artistic director of Impact Theatre. In prior Shakespearean productions, the theater company has had a female Lucius (“Titus Andronicus”), Mercutio (“Romeo and Juliet”) and so forth. While many directors tend to shy away from this bold move, it is Hillman’s gender-swapping casting that gives the avante-garde Impact Theatre and its shows so much gusto.

The most notable character is, by far, Alexander Lenarsky’s Celia — the saucy, “Vogue”-toting best friend and cousin of Maria Giere Marquis’ Rosalind, the female protagonist whose awkward nature is often outshined by Lenarsky’s pinpoint comedic timing and flamboyant hilarity. While Shakespeare had always been quite fond of cross-dressing and role-play in his plays, this adaptation takes these elements a step further by completely reconstructing Celia’s character, bringing a whole new perspective to this quintessential rom-com.

In close second is Luisa Frasconi’s soda-sipping, frivolous and floozy teen queen Phebe. The character is anything but charming. She is an absolute romp to watch as she prances around the stage lusting after Ganymede, the indistinguishably disguised Rosalind, and ruthlessly rejects the advances of hopelessly lovestruck Silvius, played by Brandon Mears.

Other memorable characters include Sarah Coykendall’s sharp gender-bent depiction of Jacques and Miyaka Cochrane as the male protagonist, Orlando, Rosalind’s equally awkward lover.

Despite its humor, “As You Like It,” struggles to clearly string together the series of events and can be hard to follow at certain times. For those unfamiliar with Shakespearean language, following the play would be even more difficult because the dialogue doesn’t stray from the original except for the occasional utterances of modern phrases in between lines. The recycling of several actors for multiple characters may also elicit confusion.

In any case, Impact Theatre’s re-envisioning serves not only as a reminder of the timelessness of William Shakespeare’s works but also entertains as a refreshingly modern comedy. The production will appeal to those young and old, Shakespeare fanatics or not, and is wonderfully jam-packed with pop culture references while actors speak in classic verse. Under Gillman’s daring direction, “As You Like It” is a one-of-a-kind theatrical gem that will satisfy any comedic appetite even amid moments of confusion.

Contact Michelle Lin at [email protected].