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Theater Review: A Modern Political Rendering of As You Like It

When the Cornerstone Theater Company takes the driver’s seat in association with the Pasadena Playhouse, gender-bending swerves into the political arena, taking on the hot topic of gay marriage in the production of As You Like It: A California Concoction.

Of course, gender-bending is nothing new with Shakespearean comedies. You expect a girl to play a guy, causing some confusion. For those unfamiliar with the story, a young man named Orlando wrestles and wins. Yet the Duke was not a friend of Orlando’s father who supported the Duke’s elder brother. The Duke had overthrown his brother and driven him away from his rightful position.

Orlando’s father and mother have died and his elder brother neglects Orlando’s education, treating him as little more than a tiresome servant. In a parallel construction, Orlando’s brother decides to get rid of him and Orlando flees for his life and joins the deposed duke.

Yet at the wrestling match, Orlando met and fell in love with the Duke’s niece, Rosalind, daughter of the deposed Duke. The Duke decides that Rosalind must leave, and his daughter, Celia, who is best friends with Rosalind, her cousin, steals away with her. Yet because two women traveling would be unsafe, even with their fool/jester, Touchstone, Rosalind dresses up as a man.

Theater-going Los Angelenos will be familiar with the Cornerstone Theater Group and know that it is known for creating site-specific plays, so the setting is now Pasadena, CA and the Mojave Desert. Instead of a wrestling match, the challenge is NASCAR racing at the Rose Bowl. Instead of siblings rivaling for the dukedom, it’s the mayoral office.

Alison Carey’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s little romantic trifle also borrows a device from Elizabethan theater. Where Shakespeare’s troupe would have had a man playing a woman playing a man for Rosalind, in this production Rosalind is played by a man, Christopher Liam Moore. Rosalind doesn’t have a brother, but a sister, Olivia (Lisa Tharps), who we later learn is a lesbian. Touchstone finds love with a man, a rude and lowly mechanic (Benajah Cobb). There is also an Internet wedding officiant (Kate Mulligan) who refuses to marry a gay couple and an alien.

Carey’s adaptation must, of course, veer away from the original folio. Carey updates it with lines like “use this hand to flip burgers” or “Is ‘old bitch’ my reward?” or “Her roses are better cultivated” than Orlando or a reference to Thelma and Louise, Joshua trees and the Pasadena parrots, and the dreaded bird flu. The result is without a doubt more politically motivated than the original and doesn’t run as well. The mayor and former mayor (both played by Gerald Hiken) conceit doesn’t really work and the alien resolution seems tacked on as a feverish, though misguided, inspiration.

Maybe with another location and a different set of circumstances, the play would make more sense, allowing the audience to focus on the sexual preference agenda rather than the labored site-specific aspects.

Definitely a Shakespeare with a modern twist, the production ends its run on April 16.

As You Like It, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Avel, Pasadena. (626) 356-PLAY.

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