As You Like It Review
Kara-Lynn Vaeni’s production of As You Like It, the centerpiece of Hofstra’s 67th Annual Shakespeare Festival, is a concept production without a concept. This time around, the Forest of Arden is home not only to the Bard's zany, slapstick plot, but also to awkward staging, glaring textual omissions, hipsters, hip-hop, and Beyoncé—oh my!
Set in a French duchy, Shakespeare’s comedy tells the story of Rosalind, who is expelled from court by her usurping uncle and escapes to the Forest of Arden disguised as a young man, along with her cousin Celia and the court fool, Touchstone. Mayhem ensues as Rosalind, disguised as the young man Ganymede, pretends to “cure” her love Orlando of his devotion to Rosalind by taking her place and acting out their relationship.
Director Kara-Lynn Vaeni, whose stylized blocking is a testament to her background as a choreographer, takes Shakespeare’s delightfully labyrinthine text and runs with it—unfortunately entangling herself and her cast in the process. Vaeni has transformed the Forest of Arden into a folk-hipster paradise, replacing the text’s pastoral lyrics with modern pop, hip-hop, and indie rock hits. The jokes that land either reduce dialogue to slapstick direction, or pander desperately to the audience’s taste for pop-culture.
Though Shakespeare’s text already plays with gender identity and creates space for gender-blind casting, Vaeni has revised the text itself to include a cross-dressing Duke Senior and a butch lesbian shepherdess named “Sylvia.” While her attempt at a millennial update is admirable in idea, the director’s changes stand in glaring contrast to her neglect of the quasi-homoerotic potential between Orlando and the pseudo-male Ganymede (Rosalind in disguise). More generally problematic is that the play’s action—with the exception of a bawdy Act 3, Scene 3—is conspicuously chaste, given the play’s idyllic setting and its references to the open-mindedness of hipster culture.
Peter Fogel’s costume design is colorful and visually inspired, but unexplainably transitions from a leather-based, steampunk ensemble at court to the patchwork, “hipsteresque” costumes of the forest shepherds. Moreover, Roni Sipp’s idyllic set, whose trees and hills loom tall above the audience, clashes with the disparate elements of Fogel’s costumes and Vaeni’s awkwardly interpolated hip-hop sequences.
While a few performances stand out—Andrew Salzano’s Touchstone, jolly and articulate, comes to mind—the majority of the cast delivers their lines halfheartedly. Natasha Cole’s Jaques gallops across the stage without a hint of trademark melancholy, never pausing for a sigh or moment of introspection. Be sure, however, that this flatness is not entirely due to a lack of talent (Cole recently gave a dynamic performance as Lil’ Bit in How I Learned to Drive). It seems, rather, that characters’ lines and speeches are often upstaged by Vaeni’s hyperactive staging, as Celia climbs up a bluff or as Rosalind drums her knees to the rhythm of her speech.
In addition to garbling its cast’s lines, this production rushes its finale along, and cuts Rosalind’s epilogue—one of the few Renaissance epilogues delivered by a female character—in favor of Beyonce’s “Love On Top.” In this reviewer’s opinion, that substitution quite succinctly reflects this production’s priorities and direction. Interpret that as you like.
As You Like It runs Friday 2/26 and Saturday 2/27 at 8 PM, and Sunday 2/28 at 2 PM in the Blackbox Theater in New Academic Building. All students can get two free tickets with their current Hofstra ID card. If seats are available, tickets will be sold at the door 90 minutes prior to showtime.
This essay has been revised and expanded from its original, pseudonymous publication by The Hofstra Critics.