“All the World’s a Stage”: Shakespeare’s 'As You Like It' on The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s Outdoor Stage
“And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” ~ from “As You Like It”
The critics do what critics do, and a fair number of them don’t have a particularly high regard for Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” George Bernard Shaw, for instance, famously suggested that the play’s title is a subtle dig by Shakespeare himself, i.e., “This play is written as you (the audience) likes it, not as I like it.” That’s a stretch, but there’s truth at its core: Whatever critics may think, audiences love this comedy.
What’s not to love? “As You Like It” takes a remarkably frank look at the joys and folly of romantic love. Its gender-bending elements can seem startlingly modern. The play is clear-eyed and unsentimental about the unpredictability of human nature, about how people change—sometimes in the blink of an eye—for reasons that they themselves do not fully understand. It plays the simple life of forest folk against the sophisticated life of city folk. You have a court jester and a philosopher commenting on all the goings-on, sometimes reversing their points of view. And you have winning songs and one of Shakespeare’s most unforgettable speeches: “All the world's a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players;/ They have their exits and their entrances,/ And one man in his time plays many parts … ”
“We’ve done ‘As You Like It’ on our Main Stage a number of times over years,” says Bonnie J. Monte, now in her 23rd year as artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. “The play went very much to the top of our list when we established our Outdoor Stage, because, obviously, like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ it makes sense to take a play set in a forest and do it outdoors. And ‘As You Like It’ is a play that works particularly well, I think, when produced for the wider audience that outdoor productions attract. We get all kinds of people outdoors we don’t often see inside our theater, such as entire families. They picnic, they hang out, they enjoy the setting. It’s something special.”
Monte is directing Shakespeare Theatre’s “As You Like It” June 19-July 28 in one of North Jersey’s most beautiful venues, the Greek-style amphitheater on the campus of The College of Saint Elizabeth in Morris Township, just down the road from the company’s home in the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre at Drew University, Madison.
Monte says that she’s putting together a fairly straightforward traditional staging, cutting the script “a little, not radically, so that we can do the show in two hours, plus a 15-minute intermission. This play can be cut responsibly to a size that’s manageable for a family with young children without hurting it, without hacking the script the death. We want it to play well. We want it to be visually exciting, to work as a memorable learning experience for kids, to thrill them with its magic. This falls well within the performance tradition for the 1600s, when so many troupes were outdoor companies.”
“As You Like It” features a large cast of characters. Performing major roles in Shakespeare Theatre’s production will be Caralyn Kozlowski as Rosalind (the heart and soul of the play, and one of Shakespeare’s incomparable female roles); Matthew Simpson as Orlando; Maria Tholl as Celia; Bruce Cromer as the Duke; Greg Jackson as Jaques; and Robert Clohessy as Touchstone. The production is being created by set designer Jonathan Wentz, lighting designer Andrew Hungerford and costume designer Paul Canada.
One challenge Shakespeare Theatre faces with Outdoor Stage is the unavoidable fact that St. Elizabeth’s Greek amphitheater sits below the flight path for two airports. This is a factor, Monte says, in choice of plays.
“It’s more of a challenge to a serious drama. We couldn’t do ‘Medea’ and have her hold off murdering the children until the plane had passed,” she says. “There’s a little bit of risk to a show like ‘As You Like It,’ as it’s the most serious of Shakespeare’s comedies, but we work with it. The actor playing Jaques asked me, ‘What do I do if a plane flies over in the middle of ‘All the world’s a stage?,’ and I told him, ‘Stop. Look up. Glare down the plane.’ In other words, work it into the performance somehow. We’ve been looking at the play and discussing what the cast should do at various moments if they have to deal with this. We’re thinking up different bits for each of them. We think this could add some surprises.”
On the Main Stage, Shakespeare Theatre just finished its run of Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World.” Coming up this summer are Noël Coward’s “Fallen Angels” (July 3), Robert Sherwood’s adaptation of Deval’s “Tovarich” (Aug. 7), and the world premiere of Cathy Tempelman’s play about George Eliot, “A Most Dangerous Woman.” The company also presents a play-reading series – Lend Us Your Ears— in which script-in-hand performances are followed by a talk-back session with the director and cast. –There’s always something with Shakespeare Theater, including new work and revivals.
“What a company like ours has to do,” Monte says, “is to win the audience’s trust with work at a level of a quality that makes them willing to explore. While it’s true that people want material they know, what’s the excitement in that, we ask them. We ask them to accept the incredible gift of theater that no one else is seeing. I like to think we’ve succeeded in developing an adventurous, risk-taking audience. I’m not sure every theater wants to encourage such boldness because it makes the job of programming more difficult.”
By any measure, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is one of the largest and most prominent classical theater companies in the United States. Fundraising remains a constant struggle. The company is receiving “incredible” support from individual donors, Monte says, and from some corporate stalwarts such as Bank of America, but corporate funding remains way down from the levels that pre-existed before the Great Recession. The Dow may be roaring north of 15,000, but corporate philanthropy in the arts is not reflecting this, for Shakespeare Theatre and generally.
“It’s hard. It will continue to be hard. You have to accept the premise that you need to make people love what you do so much that they want to give you money,” Monte says. “And I get frustrated when I hear, ‘we’re supporting education, we’re supporting literacy,’ when all the studies show that there’s no more effective tool for advancing education and literacy than the arts. I mean, how often do we have to prove this?”
Shakespeare Theatre directly reaches 100,000 adults and children a year, says Monte, who conceived and implemented a major initiative to make education a vital component of the company’s mission following her appointment in 1990.
According to the company’s website, “Shakespeare Theatre offers a variety of interdisciplinary programs for students, educators, artists-in-training and the general public. Many of these programs are interconnected, designed to lead participants through ascending levels of discovery and potential. After more than 20 years and over a half of a million young people directly impacted by this initiative, the stories abound of children and teachers for whom one of these programs was the springboard for personal growth, transformation and inspiration.”
This journey can start for one and all with a picnic at Shakespeare Theatre’s Outdoor Stage. Audience members are invited to bring their own food and beverages, or purchase snacks and soft drinks on site. Patrons are encouraged to bring blankets or low-lying beach chairs. Stadium seats are available for rental for $3 while supplies last. Seating is general admission.
For a complete performance schedule and more information, visit www.shakespearenj.com.