Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Not Completely As I Would Have Liked It

There is much to admire in David Mackay's production of As You Like It at Bard on the Beach, which I caught in preview performance last night along with several members of my Women and Comedy class (we are discussing the play next week). Lois Anderson is a spirited, intensely physical, and very sexual Rosalind, and she is matched in comic timing, vivacity, and stage presence by Luisa Jojic as Celia. These two bosom buddies do not moon coquettishly over the de Boys brothers (Todd Thomson as Orlando and Sebastian Kroon as Oliver), but rather openly display their desire and revel in the frank ribaldry of Shakespeare's language. As such, we are given much lustier portraits of both women than we normally see in productions, their respective sexual ids having been unleashed by the wilds of Arden--a point reinforced especially by the staging of one of the songs requested by Jaques (John Murphy) of Duke Senior's men in Act IV as a fever dream of Celia's.

At the same time, I did chafe a little at what struck me as the resolutely heteronormative channeling of the women's open sexuality. After all, the play is pretty clear in suggesting that Celia and Rosalind, who share a bed in addition to an intensely symbiotic friendship, are same-sex cousins who kiss, and very likely a lot more else besides. When Rosalind falls for Orlando, Celia is openly jealous, and as critics like Julie Crawford have suggested, one way to interpret the speed with which Celia accedes to Oliver's marriage proposal so late in the play (and so soon after first laying eyes on him) is that she sees in a union with Orlando's newly reconciled brother a way to remain close to her own "most true" bosom buddy--Rosalind.

Of course, one of the delicious ironies of As You Like It is that the marital epithalamium is actually forestalled at the end of the play. To be sure, the god Hymen is magically conjured by Rosalind to unite each of the four couples (Rosalind and Orlando; Celia and Oliver; Touchstone and Audrey; Silvius and the truculent Phoebe), but the bonds are actually never pronounced and Duke Senior's concluding couplet announcing their imminence is followed by Rosalind's epilogue, which takes us out of the fictional temporality of traditional comic closure and into the subjunctive temporality of the play's real-world staging ("If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me..."). Spoken by a boy actor who has just finished playing a woman playing a boy playing a woman, both the potential cross-gender and same-sex pathways encapsulated by this phrase are made manifest not just in the radically unstable referent behind the first-person pronoun, but also in the equally ambiguous second person addressee, whose multiple and multi-directional identifications cannot be pinned down.

So what happens if you excise the epilogue altogether, as this Bard production does? For one thing, you necessarily make marriage the de facto end point, both structurally in terms of the play and ideologically in terms of normalizing the free play of gender identifications and sexual desires that up until that point had reigned in Arden. The homoerotic associations that resurface in Rosalind's epilogue, and that link it to her cross-dressing elsewhere in the play, are here jettisoned in favour of an explicit staging of the revelries only hinted at in Duke Senior's final lines.

As disturbing, to me, is the fact that removing the epilogue also imperils if not destroys altogether the complicity established between performers and audience, that we are not only in on the joke (of gender and sexuality, generally, but also of theatrical masquerade more specifically), but that we are enjoying the joke. In a production that has up until this point traded in broad winks at the audience, not least in Ryan Beil's delightful capering, ad libbing, and general breaking of the fourth wall as Touchstone, this seems a curious final choice. And falling back on an excuse of changing theatrical conventions--i.e., that to a contemporary audience a female actor speaking the epilogue as written just wouldn't make sense--betrays an equally grievous failure of imagination in presuming audience members' identifications with both the character of Rosalind and the actor playing her are singular and straightforward.


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