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Photo by Roger Mastroianni
Le Beau (actor, Boe Wank*) shares some news with Touchstone (actor, Maggie Kettering*), Rosalind (actor, Jodi Dominick*) and Celia (actor, Mandie Jenson*)
As we tiptoe into the 2024 election season, it is instructive to note that a likely Presidential nominee for one of the major parties will be firmly in favor of eliminating the rights of LGBTQ people—particularly trans people—to exist in our society. That is of particular significance for theater companies such as Great Lakes Theater, which focus on producing the plays of William Shakespeare, a man so fond of gender twists that he could be called the Ru Paul of the 16th century.
One of his most transporting creations, As You Like It, is now on the Hanna Theatre stage, and it centers around a woman, Rosalind who disguises herself as a man dubbed Ganymede so she can get close to Orlando, the man she loves who is escaping the threat from his evil brother Oliver.
The exposition of how all this is set up, and how everyone winds up hooking up in the peaceful Forest of Arden, is wonderful to experience but tedious to describe. Suffice to say that it involves Shakespeare's usual braiding of multiple storylines, a process that plays out much more clearly on stage than in banal narrative descriptions.
Happily, GLT's forest is set up for romantic trysts since it is no primitive woodland with prickly bushes, smelly bogs and such. No, in scenic and lighting designer Rick Martin's hands, this forest looks like the sixth tee at the Shaker Heights Country Club, complete with what appears to be a thick, lush, freshly mown carpet of creeping bentgrass.
The collection of people populating this cozy Shangri La includes Duke Senior, who has had his throne usurped by his bro Duke Frederick. Duke Senior and his loyal followers now live off the land in Old Will's satirically blissful paradise, where assorted lords, servants, shepherds, shepherdesses and goat keepers are randy and ready for action.
In the central romantic match, Nick Steen is the very image of Orlando, a stud who is brave, chivalrous and just dim enough to make him lovable. And in the linchpin role of Rosalind, Jodi Dominick is perfectly cast as she brings her natural, loose-limbed affect to her cross-gender portrayal of Ganymede. And when she finally blossoms as Rosalind, it feels liberating for all involved.
There are plenty of other romances going on in these woods, with Rosalind's bestie Celia (a cheerful Mandie Jensen), the amusing court jester Touchstone (Maggie Kettering), shepherd Silvius (Joe Wegner), and shepherdess Phebe (Angela Utrera)—all being pursued, confused, and ultimately falling in love.
Other standouts in the cast include David Anthony Smith, who applies his stentorian pipes as both of the Dukes, Frederick and Senior. Smith's talents of elocution long ago won this corner's award for The Most Punctiliously Punctuated Plosives, and he doesn't disappoint. As the emo-tormented Jacques, Lynn Robert Berg squeezes the most out of juicy lines such as his dour response to the others' happy songs, "I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs."
Director Charles Fee and his team of designers (costumes: Kim Krumm Sorenson; composer and sound: Matthew Webb) keep the mood light and airy. They fold in a couple songs along the way as Shakespeare's themes involving the delights of love and the flexibility of the human experience rise to the surface.
And speaking of that flexibility, that brings us back to reality, where freedom will be on the ballot again very soon. Let's hope that Shakespeare's trans-friendly plays aren't swept off the library and school shelves like so many books in MAGA states have been, just because they dare to conjure a world where gender is not subject to government mandate. And where a play with the warm and welcoming title of As You Like It can exist without fear or favor.
As You Like It
Through April 8 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, Playhouse Square, 2067 E. 14th Street, 216-241-6000, greatlakestheater.org.
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