As You Like It
Shakespeare in the Arb
by Stephanie Rieke
Nature's ability to restore and transform is a long-standing theme in Western life and culture. In the eighteenth century, Queen Marie Antoinette often found it amusing to escape the perfumed protocol at Versailles by retreating to a country estate and dressing up as a rosy-cheeked milkmaid. As You Like It, Shakespeare's late sixteenth-century romantic comedy, is a classic entrant in the pastoral tradition. This month's production, which runs three weekends beginning June 10, marks the fourth year that the Residential College and Nichols Arboretum jointly present Shakespeare in the Arb.
Like past Arb productions, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It will travel to multiple locations in the park as its characters journey from the intrigue at court to the Forest of Arden. Of special note this year: one early scene (the wrestling match) will inaugurate the Arb's new amphitheater, an organically shaped structure designed by U-M architecture and landscape architecture grad students. And music and dance will be featured more prominently. The festive wedding finale will take place in one of the Arb's hidden gems familiar to those who saw Midsummer the East Valley.
For director Kate Mendeloff, associate director Martin Walsh, and their merry band of thespians, the Arb provides special energy and inspiration. As Mendeloff described their rehearsal process recently, "We discover the play through the Arb and discover the Arb through the play."
As You Like It reflects a more sophisticated and subtle exploration of the delights of love and the court-country dichotomy than some other Shakespearean comedies. No simple equations (country + simple = happiness; love + sincerity = lifelong passion) exist for such complex central characters as thoughtful and generous Rosalind, who, disguised as a boy in the forest, tutors her lover, Orlando, in how to woo a woman.
All the world's a stage, per Jaques's oft-quoted set piece. We players enter and exit, performing many, often contradictory, parts. The cycle of life
remains constant, but one's role is always malleable as you like it.
Open-air theater itself affords a heightened commune with nature. Wind, ambient noise, and changes in light all influence one's perception of the piece and encourage a sense of freedom and rejuvenation. Ann Arbor is clearly hungry for this sort of enlightened production, one that takes advantage of treasured homegrown resources, natural and artistic. But as wildly popular as this annual event has become, sustained funding has proven elusive. Here's hoping its creators can find the resources to make it permanent. After four short years of Shakespeare in the Arb, it's difficult to imagine summer in the city without it.
[Originally published in June, 2004.]