Given the winter that wasn’t this past season, many Vermonters are finding springtime to be a bit anticlimactic. That whole rebirth and renewal thing seems kind of redundant. But, as the Vermont Stage Company (VSC) production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It would like to remind us, gaining a fresh perspective on who we are is more a matter of will than of weather.
Personal transformation is a focus of director Jason Jacobs’ interpretation of Shakespeare’s comedy, currently running at the FlynnSpace in Burlington. The 16-character cast is played in this production by just seven actors, some of whom play cross-gender roles. The play’s female and male leads, MJ Brackin as Rosalind and Lowell Byers as Orlando, stay in one character for the entirety of the play, but the five other cast members split 14 roles among them. Consider that Rosalind masquerades as a man through most of the play, and the stage is set for a lot of acting in another’s shoes.
Rounding out the cast are Chris Caswell — fresh from directing Nathan Jarvis in Seth Jarvis’ original play ICON — Patrick Clow, Catherine Domareki, Jordan Gullikson and Orion Lay-Sleeper.
“The transformation that the actors play when playing,” Jacobs says, “is a reflection of the story of the play, which is really about the transformation that human beings are capable of making when we step outside of our everyday doldrums of life.”
In As You Like It, Rosalind gets a nudge in stepping outside her comfort zone when she’s banished by her uncle, the duke, to the Forest of Arden. There, she and her companion Celia (Domareki) stumble into a quintessentially Shakespearean tale of mistaken identity and romantic entanglements. The pastoral setting is not alive with fairies or spirits as one finds in other Shakespeare works. Jacobs describes it as simply “a place where people discover out themselves,” a natural setting where people can “relax and find different aspects of themselves.”
The VSC’s As You Like It clears the way for that self-exploration through its stripped-down production. The show’s sets are minimal — as they were in Shakespeare’s time — which heightens the focus on the actors and the Bard’s inimitable language. As Jacobs, known to VSC audiences for his directorial work on Oliver Twist, Opus, The Boycott and Vanya/Vermont, notes, he and his crew weighed carefully how much costume changing should be done to signify character shifts. Their choices about this aspect of the show, he says, give the audience a chance to see that transformation take place — on stage. Giving the play a vaguely mid-20th-century European setting, he adds, makes the play all the more accessible, although the goal was not to set the play in a particular time and place. “I didn’t want to set this in a historical time,” he says. “We’re going with a theatrical reality rather than a historical reality.”
Opening Shakespeare’s play up to new possibilities is part of Jacobs’ overarching goal of presenting the work “on a scale that is human and not as big and pompous as we associate Shakespeare productions to be,” he says. The result, in As You Like It, is a “sense of fun, liberation and joy.” The director goes so far as to call it “a springtime romp.”
While the need for such a romp may not be as acute this spring as the need for an explanation as to just what the hell happened to winter, As You Like It still resounds with uniquely Shakespearean insight in any season — thanks to some of his best-known lines, such as “All the world’s a stage” from the Forest of Arden’s resident crank, Jaques (Caswell). And then there’s this one from exiled Duke Senior (Patrick Clow), which speaks to audiences today on all kinds of levels: “True is it that we have seen better days.”
As You Like It, written by William Shakespeare, directed by Jason Jacobs, produced by Vermont Stage Company. April 18 to May 6, Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., at the FlynnSpace in Burlington. $27-32.50. Info, 863-5966. flynntix.org