PROVO — Growing up with a father whose passion was English, literature and poetry, there was not a day that I did not hear a quote from one of William Shakespeare’s plays escape his well-versed lips. BYU’s latest production of As You Like It with a modern twist really did not fit with my expectations for Shakespeare. Whether or not that is a bad thing will be interesting to hear from other audience members.
It is a classic tale of woman loves man, is denied the chance to be with him, and does something drastic so they can be together. In this case, Rosalind, the leading female role and daughter of Duke Senior, decides she will dress like a man and flee into the forest, bringing her cousin, Ceilia, the daughter of Duke Frederick with her. Before this “change,” Rosalind has fallen madly in love with Orlando, Sir Rowland De Bois’ son, which plays a major role in the reason for the runaway. Along the way, Rosalind, now disguised as Ganymede, finds her love Orlando, who obviously believes her to be a man and, in order to be sure of his utter devotion for her, puts him through several tests.
Brigham Young University’s Department of Theatre and Media Arts produces several plays each year and it seems that at least one of the slots is given to Shakespeare. Director Kymberly Mellen had the daunting task of presenting the Bard and chose to combine the classic text with several modern influences.
Using his traditionally splendid tongue, Shakespeare set As You Like It in his own present-day Eastern Europe. Mellen took the next step and, according to the program, “the production [is] therefore set in modern times and treats issues of revolution, refugee communities, and political exile.” Throughout the play, the use of contemporary music, costumes and language “makes this production both faithful to Shakespeare’s pastoral romance and relevant to our times of political upheaval.”
I want to focus on the music in this production for a moment. As You Like It has more songs than any other of Shakespeare’s plays and Mellen made sure her cast stayed true to this fact. The program for this BYU production had a page where all of the songs were listed in a playlist. A few of my favorite songs in the production were “I’ll Follow You into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie and “The Chain” by Ingrid Michaelson. Although the music was great and it tied in the modern theme simply but splendidly, I did not feel that it really served a purpose in moving the overall action of the individual scenes.
Granted, I attended the first dress rehearsal so it is likely the production has since become much stronger and more fluid. But in this performance I felt like the actors did not know how to transition from scene to scene and relied too heavily on the music to make that happen. During the scenes themselves, the actors also felt a little awkward with their lines and how to put the emotion Shakespeare intended his words to have.
The technical elements saved the show. Lighting designer Michael Handley was brilliant. There was one scene where Duke Frederick (Bradley Moss) was trying to get information from two captives. The only lighting in the scene came from single lights above, but it created columns of light, which made me think the scene occurred underground, in a dungeon maybe. Sound designer Sarah Nasson helped to solidify the mood with the sound of dripping water.
The background noises in several scenes such as: helicopters circling above, a crowd at the wrestling match, owls hooting in the forest and stream running placidly through the campsite, made me feel like I was actually at the match, or in the forest.
There was quite a bit of fighting in this play and every punch, kick and body slam was so fake and really brought the level of acting down in the scenes. I understand that stage combat is difficult and I commend the actors for spending hours learning these different moves, but in the end, I do not think they were achieving the realism they were hoping for.
As in many of Shakespeare’s plays, love is a key element in every scene and the same holds true in As You Like It. As mentioned, there were many elements that made this play feel like a mere play, but I felt like Rosalind (Ashley Bonner) and Orlando (Ben Isaacs)’s love for each other brought that sense of truth back into the play.
There were many memorable characters in this play, and it may be silly for me to say, but I felt as if the forest babies and the children were some of the best actors. They followed all of their cues and I really enjoyed their raw honesty and charisma. They were my favorite actors and their presence, along with the BYU students and older actors, created a real sense of a community theater production, which I appreciated. The combined ages brought the comedy to life.
“It is important to remember that this story is billed in anthologies and in our mid as a comedy. It fits that genre in many ways” Zach Archuleta, the dramaturg said. “There is a joyous wedding at the end. But we will have to travel through a dark and bitter forest as well as a blooming and hopeful one to see it.”
As You Like It plays through April 2nd (Tue-Sat) at 7:30 PM with Saturday matinees. Performances take place in the Pardoe Drama Theatre of the Harris Fine Arts Center on the campus of BYU. Tickets are $8-15 and are available by phone (801-422-4322) or online at BYUArts.com.
Questions to our Readers
- Do you agree or disagree with the above review?
- What dangers do you have to address when modernizing a classic?
- What benefits have you seen in adapted works?