by Philippa Kelly
A sunny day in Ashland, Oregon. A cup of black coffee (director Desdemona Chiang) and a pot of tea (me). Two people sitting in a café, brainstorming about what kind of infant is to be born, raised, and, within a month, sent out into the world as a full-grown being: As You Like It, Shakespeare’s mid-career exploration of greed, abandonment, ambition, the gift of contemplative peace, and the mysterious fact that no human being is beyond redemption.
“I’ve got two big ideas,” says Desdemona, “And I want you to talk me off the ledge or help me jump.”
So, while the sun filters out over the hills of Ashland, we talk about how these ideas might shape what we are about to prepare for our season opener at the Bruns. Desdemona’s first question: “Who is Rosalind in 2017? Who can she become? I want to have her do something more interesting than stepping back into a dress.”
Four hundred years of history have had Shakespeare’s Rosalind breaking out of the restrictions of court life into the Forest of Arden—in boy’s clothes, as Ganymede, Jove’s beautiful male page; using her newly-engendered (and regendered) freedom to go for broke, quickly arranging four marriages (including her own) with wit and wisdom. I’m intrigued by Desdemona’s question. Why must Rosalind step back once more into those old girl-clothes, content to live as wife and mother, looking back at the character of Ganymede as a brief dream of borrowed power? How about we consider that Rosalind actually likes her inner Ganymede? Enough to want to embrace him, to be both Ganymede and Rosalind? Why must she choose? Can she have both?
And what might this vision require of Orlando, Rosalind’s lover? Perhaps he can “come home,” too, to a place he’s never been before. Because despite all the long-winded poems he writes to Rosalind, Orlando does love Ganymede, his rubious lips and excellent complexion, his wit, his playfulness, his lawyer-like precision.
“I’ve always wondered why Rosalind suddenly jumps at the idea of dressing like a man”, says Desdemona. “It’s as if she seizes this surprise moment as an opportunity for liberation, something that feels inspiring to her.” So, as we kick back in the sun, Desdemona and I talk about what this can mean: what we can gain by keeping Ganymede with us; and what we might lose. Duke Senior, banished to the forest, can get his longed-for daughter back again—but not as she was. He’ll get Ganymede. And if, with him, we’ve been through the Forest of Arden—a symbolic “everywhere”, where the mind is opened and expanded, enriched and deepened, where the thrumming heartbeat of humanity replaces the drum beat of the city—“now” can be even better.
Our next big question…but we’ve run out of time. And so, after I’ve finished rehearsals that day with OSF’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, we plan a 5 pm meeting on my way to the airport—this time at our Ashland’s Liquid Assets, to lubricate, via wine, our expanding imaginations. “I’m interested in what the forest can mean,” says Desdemona. “Celia’s line: ‘I willingly would waste my time in it.’ It’s as if the forest is a place out-of-time.’” What if we invert the play’s city/vernal opposition, making Arden a place of transformation that speaks to our Bay Area today? Oakland is where Desdemona’s imagination has landed: not Oakland the place of gentrification, a cheaper real estate for urban dreams and aspirations; but the place of exile, the 24-hour hum of the streets, people surviving on very little under freeways and in abandoned lots.
Can Oakland be our Arden? We need a world where we can invite our audience into mystery and transformation—a place both familiar and strange, a place within whose rhythms the straitjacketed world of business and finance feels like a dream, far away. Money has no value in the forest—you can’t eat it. But love does. Compassion does. And a simple banquet, open to all, at a makeshift table under a bridge or in a park with rusty swings.
As You Like It begins performances May 24 and continues through June 18.
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