In William Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It, the Forest of Arden is a place of the imagination, a place where it is possible to imagine that life will be “as you like it,” a place where dreams come true and lovers unite. The forest is a hiding place, a place to run away from troubles, and in it, too, to run toward one’s true self. The theatre provides a similar kind of escape, a diversion that can lead to discovery. Levan Tsuladze, Artistic Director of The Marjanishvili State Drama Theatre, Tbilisi, Georgia, has set his Arden in the theatre, creating a play within a play in lively Shakespearean mode. The play was performed as part of the Cameri Theatre’s Shakespeare Festival.
Duke Senior has been banished and lives in the Forest of Arden, while brother Frederick rules in his stead. Shakespeare’s play is also a play on the pastoral mode that sets the social life of the court and its mores (or lack thereof) against the simplicity and beauty of nature. Orlando, persecuted by his older brother Oliver, flees to the forest with his trusted servant Adam, while Rosalind, daughter of Duke Senior, must also escape the wrath of Duke Frederick and disguised as a youth, Ganymede, makes her way to the forest with her BFF Celia, Frederick’s daughter, who takes on the convenient alias of Aliena.
In Tsuladze’s staging, this world is presented in the context of an acting company performing a play, the set design has a stage (a raised platform) at the center, complete with curtain, and on the sidelines are wooden trunks set on their side, that open up to reveal small dressers with mirrors and drawers, such as a traveling troupe might use. If Shakespeare’s characters are wandering in Arden, then perhaps these actors are wandering too, traveling from town to town, performing their play. The experience of the play is as much on the sidelines, as it is center stage.
While I could not understand the language of the performance (which I assume to be Georgian), and the subtitles were summaries of the action rather than complete text, there was no barrier to understanding. Tsuladze’s interpretation of the play delights the senses with its images, movement and music; the words are secondary. Lest you recoil in horror at the sacrilege to Shakespeare, please remember that Shakespeare too, in this play as in many others, took another work as his starting point, then proceeded to do what he will…In this case, the inspiration was Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie (1590), but where Lodge was solidly in pastoral mode, Shakespeare tends more to comic critique than sentimental nostalgia, as might be seen in the characters he has invented: the wily fool Touchstone and the ever-melancholy Jacques. Just as the play’s characters hide in the forest in order to ultimately find their true love and true selves, it is in this freedom with Shakespeare that one finds the utmost fidelity to the Bard.
The production is lush in abundant detail! Composer and music adaptor Zurab Gagloshvili is a sorcerer! From the moment the actors enter in a musical procession, with rain sticks and instruments as unconventional as soup pot and ladle, one is carried aloft by the music and action. There are recurring musical themes: the ensemble stands together to harmonize the refrain “As You Like It” as each act opens and closes, somewhat reminiscent of radio jingles of another era; a soft wordless chorus – “pa pa pa” – is sung by the actors on the sidelines whenever the lovers are together; while other critical moments are marked by a frenzy of Georgian folk-infused music that made me want to kick up my heels and dance. At other times, the music evokes an air of quiet mystery, accompanied by the soft sound of the rain stick.
It is a play to delight the eye as well as the ear. There is nothing like falling leaves to infuse a scene with whimsy, color, and a sense of the ephemeral. The costumes are lovely with a vintage touch that evokes another era, reminiscent of the romantic musical comedies of the 40s. Pairs are “destined” to be together by their outfits: Phoebe and Silvius with their forest green, Touchstone and Audrey with colorful Harlequin diamonds adorning their clothes, while good friends Rosalind and Celia have white girlish dresses with turquoise sashes. When Orlando, who really doesn’t know how to talk to a girl, rather foolishly hangs poems upon the trees of the forest even though he has no reason to think that Rosalind will ever see them, the scene is made all the more amusing by the use of white balloons to represent the poems. As Orlando stands clutching the balloons, Ganymede/Rosalind hides close by, and releases the balloons one by one, letting them float away.
Most hilarious is the action on the sidelines, and much of the magic is there too. The evil Duke Frederick’s rule is challenged from the first, as Manana Kozakova feeds him his lines in a loud stage whisper. At times the actors who are not ‘onstage’ are amiably listening and involved in the action, at other times they follow their own devices and sit around playing cards. When Touchstone and the Corin the shepherd go fishing, the gang all chimes in with very realistic foley effects: Roland Okropiridze with duck appropriate noises, Nato Kakhidze with a kind of tongue click, Nata Muvanidze on a slide whistle, and many more joining in to create the fishing scene, with Nika Kuchava tossing in a fish, followed by a boot.
The entire ensemble gives an excellent performance. In this play of doubling, hiding and changing identities, the cross-gender casting of Ketevan Tskhakaia as Adam, Orlando’s close and trusted servant, creates an intriguing balance to his relationship with Rosalind/Ganymede. Nata Muvanidze is a perfect melancholy Jacques, turning away from the world, and finally, when the lovers are all in a row, ready to return to society, folding back into the box. Most of all though, I enjoyed the lusty, robust performance of Manana Kozakova as she ruled from the sidelines, then set Touchstone swooning as she enters her character and becomes the outrageous Audrey.
As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Director: Levan Tsuladze; Text Adaptor: Lasha Bugadze; Composer; Music Adaptor: Zurab Gagloshvili; Choreographer: Giogi Margania; Costumes Designer: Nino Surguladze; Assistant to Director: Nino Jorjoliani; Cast: Manana Kozakova – Audrey, Nato Kakhidze – Celia, Ketevan Shatirishvili – Rosalind, Ketevan Tskhakaia – Adam, Nata Muvanidze – Jacques, Tamar Bukhnikashvili – Phoebe, Nikoloz Tavadze – Oliver, Malkhaz Abuladze – Touchstone, Beso Barashvili – Duke Frederick/Exiled Duke Senior, Davit Khurtsilava – Corin, Nika Kuchava – Orlando, Zurab Berikashvili – Silvius, Roland Okropiridze – Charlie/Amiens, Onise Oniani – Le Beau.