Putting on a production of one of William Shakespeare’s plays is often fraught with numerous unique challenges. In the process of performing 17th-century prose for a contemporary audience, the cast must reconcile a pseudo-language barrier, outdated narratives and occasional inconsistencies.
But these challenges were not among the most monumental facing Stephanie Cervantez, who plays Rosalind in BareStage Productions’ performance of “As You Like It.”
As she lamented — “I don’t know how to pee like a guy!”
For the cast and crew of “As You Like It,” the source material is overflowing with potential for creativity and fresh interpretation. The story focuses primarily on Rosalind, who, dresses as a man, flees a usurped court and falls in love with Orlando (Peter Stielstra). While Rosalind (still in disguise) works to orchestrate her eventual marriage to Orlando, several other love stories develop in the forest where we lay our scene — usually to tremendous comedic effect.
“There’s no copyright; there’s no rules about it,” explained Mark Velednitsky, the production’s director. “We can take the things that we consider problematic and find a way to either play with them or address them. It can be hit or miss, but it’s worth a shot.”
Working around these “problematic” scenes is usually addressed in the cutting process — always an ambitious endeavor, given that the original work is three hours long and BareStage’s production is only 95 minutes. But Cervantez notes that while it can be jarring to see so many scenes missing from the script, it’s all part of making the production accessible to a general audience.
“Having this brought down to 90 minutes and it being something that’s digestible to a college audience, it made me realize that Shakespeare didn’t have to be a long-winded, ‘classy-classy’ thing that shuts out people,” Cervantez said.
Editing the source material can also be incredibly fruitful, as it gives the opportunity for the director to craft new character dynamics and arcs. Velednitsky was able to build a new, much more grounded and compelling romance between the jester Touchstone (Melanie Abrams) and Jacques (Ada Chang) from the skeleton of the original Touchstone-Audrey romance. This grounded romance was also derived from scenes featuring Jacques and several musical numbers.
According to Abrams, the transition from a love story about opposites attracting to one that was “more like a meeting of two equals” and a “learning process” allowed her character much more room to grow.
“I felt like I got to play a more well-rounded character as a result,” said Abrams.
The process of working out the Touchstone-Jacques romance came primarily from working with composer Jamie MacDonald on original music for the show. As Velednitsky tells it, the “beautiful Scottish genius” would adjust and adapt his score while watching scenes, depending on the mood and tone.
Mood and tone, it’s worth noting, can at times feel forced in a Shakespeare play. Storylines are tied up abruptly, just as passionate romances are formed instantaneously. For BareStage, these split-second, love-at-first-sight moments are rich opportunities for humor. Each time a new love interest would enter, “Careless Whisper” would accompany them.
“What constitutes the prerequisites of a relationship have changed dramatically since the play was written,” explained Velednitsky. “One of things I said to the actors is that you shouldn’t be afraid to play the initial (attraction) as a very physical thing. And that’s why I wasn’t that concerned with playing ‘Careless Whisper’ or something. … No shame in love at first sight — really just (saying), ‘Ooh, that’s a hottie.’ ”
That brand of freewheeling, playful humor guided much of the show’s tone.
“I still remember (Velednitsky) talking about how on the first day (he was) going to take things that were silly about the play and make them even sillier,” explained Abrams, citing the absurd wrestling match, the peeing sequence and the overdramatic herd of lions as examples. “I don’t think I ever processed how silly they were in the original script when I just read the play in a drama class, but seeing them staged … it makes more sense to just laugh at it.”
Of course, ensuring that comedic moments are conveyed throughout “As You Like It” can be more challenging than for a typical comedy. It helps of course, to have a group of particularly funny people all generating ideas together. Velednitsky appreciated that in the process of “relinquishing control over to the actors” during the rehearsal period, many of them came up with their own jokes, including a fair bit of pot-smoking humor and a hilarious moment in which Michael Loria’s Duke Senior sensually sniffs a rock.
And these jokes don’t just generate laughter — they help clarify the story and develop characters. According to Cervantez, even her mother, a non-native English speaker, could recount the full plot of the convoluted narrative just from interpreting what was happening onstage.
Ultimately though, Velednitsky, Cervantez and Abrams are simply hoping that the audience has a fun time and that they leave the show with an appreciation for Shakespeare as an accessible art form. And they’ve been successful thus far — Cervantez notes that she’s surprised that some of the more obsolete jokes land.
“People laugh at things I didn’t think they would laugh at,” she explained. “I was like, ‘That’s not even the fun part — I haven’t even peed yet!’ ”
“As You Like It” is playing at Choral Rehearsal Hall on March 9 and 10 at 8 p.m. and March 11 at 5 p.m.
Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].