‘As You Like It’ opens Globe’s Shakespeare Festival with its story of love and friendship
For a Shakespeare saga that’s generally classified as a frolicsome pastoral comedy — “the last play in the world to be solemn over,” as the scholar Helen Gardner once put it — “As You Like It” manages to traffic in some pretty significant darkness.
In the first act of the 1599 work, whose latest Old Globe production is about to open the theater’s summer Shakespeare Festival, a man attempts to set up his own brother to be assassinated via a wrestling match. (Pretty creative ploy, you’ve gotta admit).
Before that happens, a duke and his entourage already have been exiled to a life of privation in the Forest of Arden — a banishment that was symbolized in a previous, 1930s-set Globe “As You Like It” by a boxcar that appeared to suggest a moment from the Holocaust.
And the play’s most quoted speech — one of the most famous moments, in fact, in all of Shakespeare — has a melancholy lord named Jaques tracing the Seven Ages of Man, from birth to “second childishness and mere oblivion / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
(Cue the laugh track.)
Of course, even in a relatively early work of his such as this one, a certain complexity of tones is just part of the Bard.
And “I think it’s part of the fun,” says Jessica Stone, the ace director who’s making her fifth Globe appearance since 2014 — and tackling Shakespeare for the first time — with “As You Like It.”
“That’s why we have comedy, so that we can live in those moments of our lives that are tense and painful and unsure. It’s a safe place for human beings to explore their darkest fears and feelings and impulses.
“So it’s my favorite kind of comedy — to have somebody (wearing) doublet and hose madly trying to hide behind too small a log, and have a guy (Jaques) who actually used to be the one who was deeply in love, and has such a need for purity that it breaks his heart — both in society and in his personal relationships. That it actually breaks his heart.
“These tensions of cynicism and idealism and despair and hope, they’re constantly running against each other in this play. It’s my favorite kind of storytelling, and I hope I can do it justice.”
In for a landing
“I’ll not fail, if I live.”
That line is uttered by the lovelorn shepherd Silvius (there being a whole lot of lovelorn-itude in “As You Like It”) during a forest scene that the Globe ensemble is rehearsing on an early-June afternoon.
But the words also might fit Stone’s spirit of affable tenacity, as she guides her cast through several variations on the scene, toying here and there with the multiple entrances and exits and musical interludes and other moving parts.
Watching her work, you can imagine Stone could make even Shakespeare’s militant “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from “Henry V” seem funny and lovable (and not necessarily less inspiring for all of that); she jokes with the actors that guiding this sprawling sequence has been something akin to “air traffic control,” but she doesn’t let them leave for lunch without saying: “I’m really proud of you guys.”
The director certainly seems to have a fan (and friend) in her leading lady, Meredith Garretson, who plays Rosalind, the banished Duke Senior’s daughter — a character whom Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein calls “the great female role in the (Shakespeare) canon.”
The two first worked together in 2017, when Stone cast Garretson — then fresh out of grad school at New York University — as Maid Marian in the Globe’s world-premiere staging of Ken Ludwig’s “Robin Hood!”
Asked if they share a certain sensibility, Garretson replies with a smile: “Oh yeah!,” then shoots a glance at Stone and adds: “I have to watch it, because nobody makes me laugh like you do. We’ve developed a really efficient language of communication.”
“Called side-eye,” Stone interjects crisply.
“Called side-eye!,” a giggling Garretson agrees. “And working with her is so easy. It’s always about the story and doing the work and finding joy and making positive choices and serving the play. It’s always a wonderful, fun, warm room to be in.
“But I can turn to look at her for two seconds during a rehearsal, and I’ll have a little fit where I’ll have to turn away because I’m laughing so hard I’m crying.”
Stone agrees that “there is a shared sense of humor. But it is a really rare and beautiful thing to work with an actor who is so hard-working, diligent, intelligent, and brave and game. I feel like together we can just throw anything out there — we just try it and we trust each other.”
(By this point in the conversation, Garretson has grown a little misty-eyed, and not from laughing this time. But, she insists, “I’m not going to cry through the whole interview!”)
It’s maybe not too much of a stretch to say the bond between those two echoes the friendship in the play between Rosalind and her cousin, Celia — daughter of Duke Frederick, who has exiled his brother Duke Senior.
Much of the story’s plot takes off from the fresh identities the two women take on after they flee to Arden — Rosalind as a young man named Ganymede, and Celia as a shepherdess named Aliena.
The dashing young man Orlando, who has landed in Arden after the attempted death-by-wrestling plot concocted by his brother, has already fallen hard for Rosalind in a previous meeting; now he’s posting love notes around the forest for her, while receiving counsel from an unrecognized Ganymede.
The disguised Rosalind is likewise in love with Orlando, and the eventual reckoning over the romantic heat between them reverberates through multiple other relationships in the play.
Stone acknowledges she struggled a bit in figuring out where and when to set her production of the play, in a way that would let the themes speak to a modern audience while staying true to the Bard.
“I thought for a long time about it — and as a director there’s some pressure to that, because this play has been done so many ways and so beautifully over the centuries,” she says.
“There’s pressure, because it’s like, ‘Am I going to set it in Pakistan, and the wedding is Bollywood?’ For a minute I went in a really random direction and said, ‘They’re going to be Gibson Girls; it’s going to be right before the Jazz Age, and Arden is actually New York City. And Rosalind will bob her hair.’
“(So) I started listening to ragtime, and I love Scott Joplin. But I listened to maybe two pieces and was like, absolutely not — I can’t listen to that all night!
“And there’s something about the idea of primogeniture — the eldest brother getting the estate, and everyone else has to fall in line — that didn’t feel right in the Jazz Age. The more I read it and spent time with it, (I thought), ‘It’s set in France, I want it to be in France. And I want it to be far enough back that the primogeniture stuff means something.’
“And then I started reminding myself of the Age of Reason and Age of Enlightenment, and suddenly everything started falling into place. Because there’s just something about the idea that the influence of the court was waning, and (intellectual) trends were now entering the public sphere,” including such notions as the separation of church and state, separate branches of government, and environmentalism.
“I thought, maybe that’s why the duke was banished — because he was interested in that, and interested in the idea that opinion could be more in the the hearts and minds and mouths of the public. And that’s why his brother, who is threatened by that — because it threatens the monarchy — banishes him.
“And suddenly it all sort of came into focus.”
Questions of gender
Stone’s very first gig as a director came in 2010, after a distinguished acting career on both screen and stage (go online and check out her mid-’90s turn opposite Billy Porter on Jay Leno’s late-night show, in a scene from the Broadway revival of “Grease”).
The show she directed was the musical classic “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Stone made a bold move by staging the piece — whose ideas about the sexes are very much rooted in its early-’60s vintage — with an all-male cast.
“I was proud of that one,” she says now.
A little gender fluidity is clearly part of “As You Like It,” beginning with how Rosalind’s transformation into Ganymede gives her “the freedom to speak her mind” in a way she couldn’t in the more stifled world of the court, Stone says.
It also makes the play feel, in some ways, remarkably in tune with our own era’s more expansive ideas about gender.
“And for me it’s very freeing,” says Garretson, “because I feel kind of more gender-fluid than I do one direction or the other. And so I appreciate the opportunity to figure out where that lives in my body.
“And because of the time —18th-century France — and the restrictions put upon a woman and how she speaks and who she could speak to and in what way, I get to bandy about my wit in the entire second half of the play (as Ganymede) and really spar with people.
“What I think is lovely is we can even take that a step further: Loving Orlando and testing him the way Rosalind does in the play leads to, for me, the idea of: Could I be this free as a woman? Could I be this free when I reveal myself?
“Can I be all of who I am — can I be a woman out of the bounds of what we’re traditionally allowed to do and say?
“As Jess said, it’s like: ‘This is me. I’m not on a pedestal. Don’t deify me. I’m a person; I’m a mess. And will you like all of it?’”
Which brings to mind what could be a new spin on the play’s title. Not “As You Like It,” maybe, but something more akin to: “Like It, or Leave It.”
‘As You Like It’
When: Previews begin today. Opens June 22. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.) Through July 21.
Where: Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Old Globe, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
Stone at the Globe
“As You Like It” is Jessica Stone’s fifth directorial turn at the Old Globe — but her first Shakespeare play (and first outdoor show) anywhere. Here’s a look at her previous Globe productions:
- “Vania and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” 2014: Stone took over the reins of this Tony Award-winning Christopher Durang play in its San Diego premiere at the request of her longtime friend and mentor, Globe associate artist and Broadway veteran Nicholas Martin, as he struggled with cancer. (Martin died shortly before the opening.) Our review called the show “whip-smart and deliciously funny.”
- “Arms and the Man,” 2015: Stone took on George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 “anti-romantic comedy” — and did so winningly — in her second Globe outing.
- “Robin Hood!,” 2017: Like Stone, playwright Ken Ludwig has become a frequent Globe returnee (most recently with “The Gods of Comedy,” which closes today). His “Robin Hood!” became the first world premiere Stone has directed here.
- “Barefoot in the Park,” 2018: The TV stars Kerry Bishé and Chris Lowell took on the lead roles of New York newlyweds in Stone’s breezily entertaining staging of the 1963 Neil Simon comedy.
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