The art of misdirection 

UM's As You Like It masks the comedy

Cross-dressing and its attendant disguises are emerging as the themes for this theater season at the University of Montana. Rocky Horror stripped down to bare skin to explore the meaning of our social costumes. Now As You Like It ponders layers of identity—of love and social obligation and how we show ourselves, or don’t, to others, especially those we want to impress.

Bill Watson’s production is filled with terrific ideas, truly invigorating to the theater-goer. An enormous square mat covers the Masquer floor, trimmed on all sides by chairs where the actors sit when they aren’t on stage. The surface, soft and yielding, serves as wrestling mat and forest floor, and also conjures beds with tantalizing whimsy. Actors perform in bare feet (with one odd exception), and this humble nakedness is surprisingly touching, a reminder of the earthy motives that drive the characters. When Rosalind and Celia flee to Arden, the off-stage actors beat their bare heels in timpanic rhythm against the floor, creating a soft yet thundering effect of flight, pursuit and marching. The actors’ seating means no one can make a true exit and that audience members are practically part of the show, too, reinforcing the idea that Arden’s branches reach far.

Watson and costume designer Lorsey Clark have dressed the players in the simplest of modern clothes, a T-shirt, loose pants, a sarong for the women, a single sash for the actor who plays both Duke Frederick and Duke Senior (he shifts the sash position to signal role and mood change). The set, designed by Denise Massman and enhanced by Alan Michael Hanson’s notable geometrically shaped lighting, is minimal; props are limited to a few sheets of paper and a bloody handkerchief. And so, relieved of fussy distractions, we can bask in Shakespeare’s language. Well, we can try.

Most of the cast tends to race through Shakespeare’s lines, perhaps in an effort to communicate understanding. Instead, this rush becomes a din, the words often not distinct enough to convey meaning. As You Like It is one of the best examples of the English language’s inexhaustible capacity for double and triple meanings, and Shakespeare wastes hardly a speech, a phrase, a word. His wondrous genius for multiple sense is, unfortunately, lost.

Matthew M. Greseth and Bradford Poer sustain the production. As Jaques and Touchstone, respectively, they play characters who are truly exiled, characters outside the social construct of the court. Exile is a central concern of As You Like It, and Jaques and Touchstone give exile not only great depth but also a good name. Thanks to Greseth and Poer, the two characters achieve enormous prominence in the production, making exile a sort of state of grace. They speak slowly and with intense understanding, enjoying themselves, their words, their own jokes.

Now, love can indeed make us silly, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream bears that out. As You Like It, on the other hand, while about lovers and matchups, explores the emboldening powers of love, not just the dementia of desire and lust, and it does this with its astonishing heroine Rosalind.

Watson makes a giggling, simpering schoolgirl of Rosalind (Krisanne Marsel), cutting her trousered legs out from under her. When she answers Duke Frederick’s banishment with “Yet your distrust cannot make me a traitor,” we should hear her absolute right, her fierce belief in herself and her superior powers of argument. Instead, she cowers in the shadow of her hawkish uncle, as if this statement is just a last, little whimpering attempt to hang on to his favor. Rather than ingenious and powerful, Rosalind and Celia (Liz Combs) appear childish, pouty and downright poor at their cross-dressing deception. Orlando, nicely played by Bryce Jensen, acts as though he sees through Rosalind from the beginning. This makes a fool of her, and we are invited to laugh at her, never to share laughter with her. This also demeans the invention of disguise and thus renders shabby the funniest conceit of the play. Watson humiliates Rosalind, and nothing indicates this better than his choice to cut her epilogue, that playful, brilliant flirtation that gently assures her loving superiority and reminds us that we are only there conjured by her wishes.

This production puts the unusual emphasis on martial opposition and aggressive entanglement, drawing these themes forth at the expense of the wittier themes personified by Rosalind and Orlando, by Touchstone, by Jacques. Threat and hostility are established almost at once by a violently enraged Duke Frederick (John L. Marinovich) and by Orlando’s early wrestling match. Typically, that fight is played as a clownish struggle, but this time it bears the menacing threat of death. Such new interpretations are always welcome with Shakespeare, and Watson’s innovative concepts suggest at the outset that this will be a smart show, but the production sadly abandons its sweetness and, inexplicably, its comedy.

As You Like It runs at UM Masquer Theater Oct. 30 through Nov. 1, and again from Nov. 4 through 8. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m.

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