All the Forest’s a Stage

. June 2, 2014.
Much-Ado-2013-Beatrice-Carol-Gray-and-Benedick-Graham-Atkin

For the fourteenth consecutive year, local actors will take to the trees, hills, and dales of Nichols Arboretum, transforming Ann Arbor’s botanical retreat into the courtly and pastoral dreamscapes of Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Especially well-suited for outdoor performances, this late Elizabethan comedy (1598-1601) follows the intrepid Rosalind—one of the playwright’s great protagonists—as she flees her uncle’s despotic court to seek asylum and reconciliation in the forests of Arden. Traversing such seemingly divergent landscapes, the play invites consideration of how our urban and rustic worlds interrelate, as well as how one’s social, familial and erotic bonds might be reconfigured through a temporary suspension of everyday rules.

These include, of course, gender roles and expectations, and the play derives much of its energy from Rosalind’s adoption of male attire. Disguised as ‘Ganymede,’ a boy famously beloved by men and women alike in classical mythology, Rosalind’s forest persona excites a vast spectrum of desires.

Here and elsewhere—including the play’s most memorable set-piece, Jaques’s famed lament that “all the world’s a stage, / and all the men and women merely players”—As You Like It encourages audiences to examine parallels between theatre and “reality,” between identity and performance. To what extent can we escape our daily lives, identities or problems? What new insights are possible through such playful exploration—and how might theatre encourage us to rethink or reshape our environment?

For director Katie Mendeloff, who has led ‘Shakespeare in the Arb’ since the program’s inception in 2001, As You Like It appears tailor-made for the “immersive” theatrical experience of the Nichols Arboretum. Drawing upon this unique locale, Mendeloff hopes to construct “a 360 degree reality” for playgoers.

Such an approach can prove challenging for actors, however, whether novice or experienced, who “have to stay in character” throughout the entirety of each performance. Lacking an offstage space, cast members – including undergraduates, faculty, alumni, and members of the community – must maintain their theatrical persona for the duration, further extending the boundaries of Shakespeare’s imagined world.

The surrounding world does, at times, rudely intrude. Yet while productions are occasionally “interrupted by helicopters and trains and joggers,” Mendeloff embraces these disruptions as part and parcel of the theatrical experiment. Given the potential for disruption, it is all the more “important that we maintain the illusion of being in that Elizabethan world. That’s the fun for me,” she says, “trying to make it as real as possible, and to people the world with shepherds,”

And lovers and rustics and fools, courtiers and wrestlers and goddesses, poets and melancholics and musicians. Indeed, where local musicians have long been a staple of Mendeloff’s productions, often accompanying audiences as they transition between scenes, As You Like It affords an especially prominent place for the vocal and instrumental arts: with five scripted songs in the original playtext, it is a uniquely musical drama in Shakespeare’s canon.

Mendeloff hopes to draw upon and add to such musical set pieces, a move that will incorporate “more actors into the performance,” but also highlight how music can function as a medium for personal reflection and social restoration. What, playgoers might ask, do these various songs accomplish? What is their purpose, and how do they relate to the larger questions of disorder, division, and reconciliation at stake in the play?

Incessantly traversing across perceived boundaries—urban and rural, male and female, aristocratic and rustic—As You Like It appears ideally suited for performance at Nichols Arboretum. It is, Mendeloff notes, “a play that works beautifully in the Arb, because it’s a play about escaping the autocratic and tyrannical world of the court… and going to the world of the forest, where you have a chance to start over, where people have a sort of harmony with nature, and are free to try on a different sort of persona.”

Weather permitting, As You Like It will be performed every Thursday-Sunday, June 5th through the 22nd. Performances start at 6:30 pm, but audiences are encouraged to arrive early. The box office, located at the 1610 Washington Heights entrance, opens at 5 pm.

For further information, please visit lsa.umich.edu, or ‘Like’ Shakespeare in the Arb on Facebook.

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