Review: Smith Street Stage's "As You Like It" Reshapes the Landscape of Arden

As You Like It

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Katie Willmorth; assistant directed by Toni Kwadzogah

Presented by Smith Street Stage at Carroll Park

245 Carroll St., Brooklyn, NYC

June 7-25, 2023

L to R: Theo McKenna, Jonathan Minton, Mary Cavett, Jeffrey Brabant, Ben Horner, & Zoe Dongas. Courtesy of The PR Social
If you've been looking to mix a little Elizabethan drama with your Pride month festivities, then Brooklyn's Smith Street Stage has you covered. In its twelfth year of free summer performances in Carroll Park, Smith Street brings audiences William Shakespeare's As You Like It (?1599)with a few tweaks. These tweaks play satisfyingly with the play's dynamics around gender and sexuality (seventeenth century performances, it seems obligatory to note, would have had an undercurrent of queerness, with a female protagonist who would have been played by a boy and is just as attractive to women when presenting as a male youth as she is to men when presenting as female). Carroll Park may not quite be the Forest of Arden, but for a bit under two hours, you'll find yourself forgetting that.
Anique Clements and Mahayla Laurence. Courtesy of The PR Social
In Shakespeare's comedy, Duke Senior (Ben Horner) has taken to the forest with some of his followers, including the assertively melancholy Jaques (Mary Cavett), after having been displaced and exiled by his younger brother, Duke Frederick (Jonathan Minton). Early in the play, Duke Senior's daughter, Rosalind (Mahayla Laurence), is similarly exiled, and Celia (Anique Clements), Rosalind's cousin and friend and Duke Frederick's daughter, accompanies her in her exile, Rosalind disguising herself as a young man, Ganymede, and Celia taking on the identity of "Aliena." They are joined as well by the fool Touchstone (Theo McKenna). A second pair of brothers in conflict results in the younger, Orlando (Jeffrey Brabant), and his elderly servant Adam (Delia Kemph) also having to leave their home. Everyone intersects in the forest, where various country folk and misdirected desires complicate things before the comedy-mandated pairings work out (although this production, like most, omits the literal appearance of Hymen, the god of marriage).
L to R: Delia Kemph, Mary Cavett, and Booker Vance. Courtesy of The PR Social
The bareness of the performance space, with a simple triangular, flower-adorned structure as its focal point, and the Parks Department building, with doors to the left and right, that serves as the rear boundary of the stage area, evoke early modern theatrical practices. But the production is also replete with engaging modern touches. The wrestler Charles, for example, becomes in this production Lady Charles (Mary Cavett), and the scene of the wrestling contest carries a little G.L.O.W. energy (and this Charles bears a very NY accent). Adam and Jaques also become female characters, and when Rosalind resumes female presentation at the end of the play, she is still in pants. The most significant alteration, though, is the substitution of shepherd Corin, played with quiet decency by Jonathan Minton, for shepherdess Audrey as the object of Touchstone's affections. The result is a much sweeter coupling, lacking the condescending edge of the Shakespearean original. The effective choices made here are not limited to the arena of gender: the production periodically makes use of the space around and behind the audience, finds a clever equivalent to Orlando's engraving Rosalind's name on the forest's trees, and makes full use of the play's numerous songs for both characterization and transitions.
Theo McKenna and Jonathan Minton. Courtesy of The PR Social
McKenna makes for a hugely entertaining Touchstone, who is dressed in a fresh twist on the traditional motley, and Cavett is excellent as a thoughtful rather than assertively melancholic Jaques: you can feel her delight in Touchstone and see her work her way through the thoughts and emotions of the "All the world's a stage" passage. Laurence creates a youthful and excitable Rosalind, which she complicates when Rosalind-as-Ganymede argues with Orlando later in the play. Amongst strong performances all around, Kemph's Phebe is amusingly disdainful and love-struck at the same time, and Clements invests Celia with nuance and charisma. Though melancholy is certainly a theme in this play, Smith Street's As You Like It overall lands up on the lighter side of the AYLI spectrum, perfectly suited to a balmy evening outdoors. Sweet lovers may love the spring, but for Shakespeare fans in the five boroughs, summer is where it's at.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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