Part of me thinks I shouldn’t have gone. Opening night of As You Like It at the SF Playhouse (runs through January 14) came two weeks after multiple COVID infections nixed the original date. Even before the change, I knew that the company had dropped its proof-of-vaccination requirement for its audiences. As usual, I was double-masked and wearing safety glasses as I dashed through the unmasked gauntlet of the Kensington Hotel’s lobby. But despite my late arrival, the house still hadn’t opened—they were still running cues with an understudy. So I, out of habit, held my press kit over my face for extra protection against the unmasked drinkers outside the theatre doors. AD Bill English, also unmasked, asked if I was in hiding.
He did wear a mask for the curtain speech, explaining, “We’re all still wearing these ‘cause we’re all still in ‘this thing.’” That’s true, but one has to wonder why the Playhouse doesn’t reinstate its vaccine requirement amid both a three-year-old pandemic and the current “tripledemic” of influenza and RSV. During the last winter surge, Playhouse cancelled in-person performances of Twelfth Night in the interest of public safety. Now, almost one year later, the troupe announced it will be removing its mask requirement on New Year’s Day. That makes for another company whose work I won’t be seeing for a while.
To the group’s credit, this new musical version of As You Like It makes for a pleasant, lasting memory. Not only did the top-notch HVAC mean that my Aranet4’s CO² readings peaked at around 560ppm (even with someone in the row ahead coughing through his mask), but this year’s winter Shakespeare musical is a marked improvement over last year’s edition. Both were conceived and collaborated upon with Shaina Taub, and it seems as if she was trying to evolve past some of the choices that were made in 2021’s Twelfth Night that stuck out like sore thumbs. This year’s result is a streamlined, focused, and toe-tappingly enjoyable As You Like It.
Seasonal timing and a Bard byline aren’t the only things the new show shares with last year’s production. Obviously, both are based on Shakespeare rom-coms in which a cis-woman lead dresses in drag, heads to a new land, flirts with a guy—who may or may not be turned by her male guise—and gets the local experience before unexpectedly reconnecting with a relative. (Hey, The Bard had a formula.) The two productions also share cast members, and both begin with a song based on their source material’s most famous line; this time it’s “All the World’s a Stage” sung by an entertaining Deanalís Arocho Resto as Jaques. But whereas Twelfth Night has become a beloved yarn through the ages, As You Like It has come to hold an historically mixed reputation, leaving lots of room for crowd-pleasing adaptations.
For those unfamiliar: our story takes place in the aftermath of a coup d’état by Duke Frederick (Will Springhorn Jr.) against his brother Duke Senior (Michael Gene Sullivan.) Senior’s daughter Rosalind (River Navaille) lives under Frederick’s care with his daughter Celia (Abigail Esfira Campbell) and young Touchstone (played by Nicholas Yenson as a friend rather a court jester), until the three of them head off to the woods of Arden. Simultaneously, the upstart Orlando (Nikita Burshteyn) heads to those same woods with Adam (played by Wayne Wong as a friend rather than a servant) to escape the humiliation Orlando caused his brother Oliver (Ryan Torres.) Having already met and exchanged promises with Orlando, Rosalind takes the male guise of “Ganymede” to test his intentions. And that’s just one of many relationship dramas happening in the woods, now occupied by the exiled Duke Senior.
Not each and every one of Taub and Laurie Woolery’s contemporary lines mix well with the Shakespeare—in fact, some seem jammed in like square pegs in round holes. But the transition between Shakespeare’s book and Taub’s modern lyrics is seamless. The opening number expands on Jaques’ famous monologue by adding resonant phrases like “worry[ing about] what the critics have to say.” Two songs in which the gender-swapped Silvia (Sophia Alawi) uses Phoebe’s (the more contemporary moniker given to The Bard’s Phebe, whose character here is played by Emily Dwyer) name as a verb shouldn’t work as well as they do. And then there’s the boy band sequence. You’ll thank choreographer Nicole Helfer when it hits the stage.
There are a few moments during which I thought the able cast seemed stuck in place. But overall, director Bill English does an effective job in moving them around, and exploits their talents to great effect on the unique set he designed himself. At first glance, the stage appears completely empty, with an upstage projection screen presenting the title card. But over the course of roughly one hour and 45 minutes, skylights descend from the roof, trees materialize from the wings, and Sarah Phykitt’s projections take us from empty warehouses to the deep forest.
As someone who receives the newsletter of cast member Michael Gene Sullivan (best known for his work with the SF Mime Troupe), I find myself thinking back to an entry he wrote in January. It was about the popularity of genealogy tests and how most people take them hoping they’ll be connected to royalty. Sullivan took issue with the idea that only blue blood is of value when most of us are just part of the plebes.
Shakespeare had that same idea. Yes, he wrote about royalty, but no matter how’s been appropriated by the bourgeoisie and non-Stratfordians (both of whom retcon him as an aristocrat), The Bard was just a poor guy from Stratford-upon-Avon who wrote for and as one of the public, the peasants, and the proletariat. No amount of appropriation by the upper class will change that.
He also lived during plague times.
I’d be remiss not to mention that whilst reviewing a play in which elites suffer misery and danger in their wealth and station, only to find true freedom and community among the commoners. I’d also be remiss not to mention that a plague can’t be defeated by simply ignoring its existence. As You Like It is an enjoyable way for SF Playhouse to close out 2022. It’s just a shame that audiences will soon have to choose between the allure of the company’s productions and their health and safety.
AS YOU LIKE IT runs through January 14. San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets and more info here.