In Shakespeare’s celebrated comedy As You Like It, the forest of Arden is often conceived as a utopian space, a place where the rigors of the court are set aside for a more freewheeling style of life, and where erotic love flourishes. In exile there you can really figure things out and find that certain someone. And what if the court is cisgendered, while Arden is not bound by old-fashioned gender binaries?
Emma Weinstein, a third-year director at Yale School of Drama, and Michael Breslin, a third-year dramaturg, first talked about producing a gay version of As You Like It in their first year at the school. When it came time to propose a thesis project, Weinstein decided to go for a reconfiguration of the familiar play, with its tale of Rosalind, her friend Celia, and love interest Orlando finding themselves through disguise and subterfuge in the forest.
Their As U Like It will run at the Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel St., from Oct. 23 to 27. The show is technically sold out, but there will be waiting lists an hour before each show.
In their collaborative script, Weinstein and Breslin elided many characters — no Touchstone! — while “having a great time inventing mashups for other characters,” referencing the work and personae of a range of queer figures, such as Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, RuPaul, Audre Lorde, Roland Barthes, James Baldwin, David Bowie and Lady Gaga. The costuming alone, by Alicia J. Austin, should be worth the price of admission.
As U Like It takes risks beyond queering Shakespeare: Weinstein and Breslin conceived of the play as an immersive event. The scenes in the court will take place with traditional seating. The scenes in Arden will be staged as though in a club, with the actors among the audience, and vice versa. It’s an approach that’s never been done for a thesis show at YSD before. There are only 98 tickets per performance, which involves live music, composed, conducted, and arranged for four musicians by sound designer Liam Bellman-Sharpe, six brand-new songs by recent Yale College graduate Julian Hornik, and two scenes on video by Brittany Bland.
The faculty were very encouraging toward the project, Weinstein said, as a way of building on their second-year Shakespeare project — an all-female Romeo and Juliet that Breslin also worked on. Weinstein was “very excited and partly terrified” at the prospect of concocting a new script for the play, but “there was so much support at YSD to take risks and to evolve and accommodate” a radical re-conception of the play. Breslin cited theater artist Charles Ludlam’s tendency to combine many styles, using flamboyant theatrics to remake traditional works, as a major influence on the team’s sense of theatrical possibility. Both Weinstein and Breslin appeared in a production of Ludlam’s campy and touching Camille, A Tearjerker, as the closing show of last season’s Yale Cabaret, directed by the Cabaret’s current co-artistic director Molly FitzMaurice.
Weinstein’s passion for Shakespeare began at age 5, and they see the playwright’s irreverence as one of his great attractions. The director’s intention is to “reveal how radical Shakespeare’s play is,” to create “dialogue between innovation and [Shakespeare’s] original text while still respecting the play.” Calling the play As U Like It, Breslin said, “alerts the audience not to expect a traditional version of the play, and stresses the spectator’s relation to the show,” invoking the contemporary vernacular of texting. Weinstein sees their play as both “new and old and not a deconstruction of Shakespeare’s play,” rather their version “playfully unleashes the play’s own tendencies.”
Some have seen the return to normalcy at the plot’s conclusion — with the marriages that typically end comedies — as a copout, or at least a repression of some of the libidinal possibilities the play suggests. Weinstein’s production asks “what can the freedom of Arden include?” and “where do we go from here?” The idea that love and interpersonal relations are political is an idea “queer theory has been talking about forever,” Weinstein said, “and yet the binaries [of gender construction] are still present in leftist discourse.” In Weinstein and Breslin’s play, gender is “mutable and flexible.” Not only is Arden a comic release from “an authoritarian world,” but, more importantly perhaps, “a place for debate and argument and all kinds of personal and emotional observations.”
A thesis show in the Yale School of Drama, cast from actors and designed by students in the program, is an opportunity for third-year directors to produce a play that expresses what motivates their commitment to theater. Weinstein said As U Like It should help viewers see that “identity — gender, sex — is flexible,” and that, for new conceptions to flourish, it’s important to “know history and what you’re playing with.” The theory of “queer time” as a relation to the history of sexual stereotypes and archetypes is important to Weinstein’s and Breslin’s conception of the show. The characters in As U Like It cross temporal as well as gender boundaries, in search of what Weinstein sees as “the main question of the play: community,” particularly “connection and love,” and how to devise a better, more inclusive world through “compassionate human interactions.”
Will audiences like As U Like It? Weinstein, paraphrasing the play’s epilogue, said “things last as long as you like them.” Possibly for more than a few, the run of Weinstein’s, Breslin’s (and Shakespeare’s) As U Like It will end much too soon.