Students in English 197H took a trip to Staunton, Virginia to the American Shakespeare Center. There they saw a production of the play “As You Like It”. Here is one student’s account of the trip and the production.
By: Anna Lombardo
A basic and widely understood requirement that must be met before attending a performance of a Shakespearean play is to understand what type of play is about to be performed. Someone who sits down in a theater expecting to see a comedy is likely to be disappointed upon witnessing the tragic cascade of dishonesty and murder that marks Shakespeare’s Othello. It’s important to recognize the literary template upon which a play performance is based in order to gain a fuller theatrical experience of that particular play (though as our viewing of Othello proved, some adaptations of the tragedies can have their funny moments).
When I sat down at the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) in Staunton, Virginia, to watch As You Like It, I already knew the story was a comedy. There were even times in my reading of the play when I unexpectedly laughed out loud, a reaction that admittedly few pieces of writing are able to induce—especially works from the 1600s that are written in Old English. However, one of the great aspects of the performance of As You Like It was how much funnier those already humorous scenes became when they were delivered by the ASC performers.
There are two reasons why I think the play was rendered so much more amusingly during the live performance. The first has to do with the relationships between not so much the characters, but the actors and actresses themselves. I sensed a real chemistry between the members of the cast that seemed to lend itself to a more enjoyable viewing experience. This goes beyond the simple matter of finding a good character fit for a part; I noticed the cast members smiling or laughing at the manner of delivery of another actor or actress in a way that seemed slightly out of character for the former. Their “out of character” behavior provided an atmosphere of playfulness and even informality that allowed the audience to feel comfortable and free to laugh. In comparison, many Shakespeare plays today—even comedies—maintain an undertone of tragedy or intense sophistication that unfortunately appears to have become standard for the famous playwright’s works. ASC’s version was refreshingly easygoing.
This is not to say, however, that the performance was unprofessional—which leads into my second point. The actors were clearly enormously gifted in the abilities and were so skilled that they could successfully engage the audience in order to enhance the quality of their performance, bringing real life to the jokes. In Act 1, Scene 2, Celia converses with her cousin about honesty and beauty. During the performance, the actress playing Celia approached a woman sitting on the stage and touched her chin, commenting “for those that she makes fair”—she removed her hand from the woman’s chin and hit her lightly on the leg—“she scarce makes honest.” The woman accepted the joke good-naturedly and the audience (as well as some of the cast) laughed. These kinds of interactions helped to break down the so-called fourth wall, directly engaging those who were watching the performance and by doing so, making the play that much more entertaining. Overall, the talent and passion with which these individuals did their jobs created a unique atmosphere found only at the ASC that heightened the most poignant qualities of As You Like It.