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Theatre Intime’s ‘As You Like It’ is a jubilant and witty rom-com for the pandemic

<h5>Mel Hornyak / Theatre Intime</h5>
Mel Hornyak / Theatre Intime

Theatre Intime and the Princeton Shakespeare Company’s decision to remotely produce “As You Like It,” Shakespeare’s lighthearted pastoral comedy, strikes a pleasantly discordant note in a year defined by a global pandemic, accelerating political polarization, and many sacrifices, big and small. 

Due to a semester of remote learning, the Princeton Shakespeare Company and Theatre Intime had to arrange an ad hoc alternative to staging their remarkable plays in Hamilton Murray Theater. Cognizant of the popularity of podcasts under current circumstances, their decision to launch an ambitious podcast production of “As You Like It” — live-streamed on numerous different platforms on Nov. 20, including YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts — resulted in a production that does not even remotely disappoint. 

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With a stellar cast, wonderful directing by Naomi Park ’21, and an innovative fidelity to the vibrant characters at the center of this play, Theatre Intime and the Princeton Shakespeare Company have wrought a marvelous production of the iconic “As You Like It” for this socially distanced age.

Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” represents a tale of subverted social norms and keen musings about love and human nature. The play centers on the relative bliss derived by the characters from the unstructured liberty of an idyllic countryside that is juxtaposed against the suffocating constraints and politics of the kingdom they reside in. 

The play follows Rosalind (played by Megan Pan ’22), a charismatic young woman who is exiled from her absent father Duke Senior’s (played by Gabe Robare ’24) kingdom by her domineering uncle, Duke Frederick (played by Eve Fleisig ’21). Accompanied by her close friend and cousin Celia (played by Katie Bushman ’22), the two girls flee the kingdom and embark on a journey into the verdant heart of the Forest of Arden, a pastoral setting unencumbered by the tumult of the royal court and the onus of societal expectations. And in the enchanting forest of Arden, the audience is acquainted with a slew of captivating characters.

The colorful voice acting of the cast renders the production amusing, captivating, and palliative. While listening to the podcast production, I could close my eyes and envision the peculiar characters, their intriguing actions, and the settings they interact with in mesmerizing detail as these talented actors performed. For roughly a little over an hour and a half, I fled the constant stream of sorrows that has defined 2020 to wallow in the rich, inviting ambience of the Forest of Arden and become entranced by the plights and infatuations of the quirky, lustful, and witty characters of “As You Like It.” 

The sound effects that accompany the voice acting, including scuttling footsteps and brief medieval jingles, substantially amplify the immersive experience of listening to the audio, thanks to the work of sound designer Minjae Kim ’21 and assistant sound editor Nora Aguiar ’21.

The play’s meditation on the different mindsets that urban life and rural dwelling can foster in our lives has partly convinced me that the benefits of the latter supersede those of the former. However, the actions and attitudes of the characters, particularly those of Rosalind, serve to remind the audience that both pastoral and polite society are inextricably intertwined: The former cannot exist without the latter. For instance, although Rosalind derives considerable amusement from crossdressing as Ganymede and deceiving Orlando (played by Josh Rogers ’24) into requesting her advice on matters pertaining to love, she ultimately regresses to her conventional role as a woman eager to get married to the first man who piqued her interest. 

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The subversion of gender roles and sharp-witted criticisms of love that Rosalind grasps onto are ultimately relinquished to fulfill the Elizabethan audience’s desire for romantic closure ushered in by the magnetism of true love, an age-old trope that in my opinion dilutes the plot of any redeemable story. 

The transient nature of her actions and behaviors in Arden notwithstanding, Rosalind remains a headstrong, fiercely pragmatic heroine who is critical yet optimistic about the world she encounters. Her developed ideas about love stand in stark contrast to those of Orlando, who professes an irrationally strong and idealistic passion for Rosalind and carves hastily written songs of praise to her onto the bark of the trees in Arden, and those of Touchstone (played by Eliana Cohen-Orth ’21), whose motivations for pursuing Audrey appear to be predominantly guided by his libido as opposed to genuine compassion. The theme of love and its myriad forms is central to the play, as evinced in the case of Orlando and Rosalind’s mutual love-at-first-sight attraction.

A character that struck me as particularly resonant to our turbulent times is Jaques (played by Giao Vu Dinh ’24), one of Duke Senior’s followers who maintains a relatively placid life in Arden. Throughout the play, his demeanor remains steadfastly morose, and his cynicism never fails to present itself. For instance, when Duke Senior slaughters a deer, Jaques makes a derisive remark on his behalf, lamenting the duke’s act of violence and drawing far-fetched comparisons between Duke Senior’s animal hunting proclivities and his brother Duke Frederick’s malevolent actions in the court. 

Jaques seems to identify reasons for misery and disgust at every instance and launches into diatribes or articulates complaints whenever the occasion arises. This recurring pessimism proves draining; at one point, Orlando bids him farewell and addresses him by “good Monsieur Melancholy.” His attitude is wholly reminiscent of the nihilistic perspective that many of us may have succumbed to during the course of quarantine, this pandemic, or our lives in general. Listening to Jaques’ lines serves as an important reminder that pessimism is never at the root of movements geared toward driving change. Jaques’ inescapable gloom translates into apathy that mires him further into his self-imposed cocoon of misery.

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At one juncture, Jaques claims that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” In this renowned line, Jaques begins a wistful monologue that regards the course of life as a spectacle not unlike a staged performance, in which each subsequent act represents the inevitable progression of age. However, this fatalistic metaphor of reality fails to encompass the complexities of human existence and stands in contrast to the dynamic characters in “As You Like It.” 

Indeed, Rosalind, whose motives and ideas constitute something of an optimistic foil to those of Jaques, rebukes Jaques’ dismal views and likens him to a post when she first interacts with him. Furthermore, Rosalind establishes her views on emotional moderation, noting that excessive happiness and sadness are both disastrous states to find oneself caught up in: “Those that are in extremity of either are abominable fellows and betray themselves to every modern censure worse than drunkards.” In stating this, Rosalind seems to affirm that the counterforces offered by spending time in both the country and the court coexist in a beneficial way that engages with the complex challenges of being human. 

While the constraints of court politics can prove mercilessly fraught and dismal, the uninhibited mirth in the countryside can be just as counterproductive to leading a full life. This can serve to remind us that even when our circumstances can appear unendurable, unburdening ourselves of all of our responsibilities can be more harmful than not; Rosalind essentially believes that humans should balance the more strenuous parts of their lives with those facets that grant us unconditional peace of mind.

At the conclusion of the play, true identities are revealed and three marriages officiated simultaneously. Jacques de Boys (played by Aniket Mukherji ’24, a contributing reporter for The Daily Princetonian), a brother of Orlando, abruptly appears out of thin air to notify the group of Duke Frederick’s spiritual awakening and Duke Senior’s reclamation of his kingdom. With one fell swoop, the characters dispense with their Arden personas and return to fulfill the roles that their ordinary lives in the court demand. Jaques experiences a kind of reversal in his erstwhile dreary perspective; he decides to follow in Duke Frederick’s footsteps and follow the peaceful rituals of the monastery.

This vibrant production of “As You Like It” provides a highly warranted reminder that taking a respite from the disorienting world of politics and civilization at large can alleviate the pain of our adversities, even if for only a temporary period of time.

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