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As Who Likes It?

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw are considered Great Britain's two greatest playwrights--and some would argue that the two are the finest writers the English language has ever seen. Two theaters in the Pasadena/Glendale area are currently staging works by these two men which showcase two very different ways of presenting Shaw and Shakespeare's work.

The Pasadena Playhouse, in conjunction with the local Cornerstone Theater Company, has put together something called As U Lyk It: A California Concoction--which takes Shakespeare's comedy out of the Forest of Arden and transplants it to the modern day Mojave Desert. This is not a bad idea--last year, the West End saw an agreeable As You Like It that was updated to World War II France and Kenneth Branagh has a filmed version coming out later this year that sets the play in 19th century Japan.

However, the trick to As You Like It is not finding a clever setting, but rather finding a great Rosalind. Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's greatest characters. I remember being in a classroom at Yale, where Harold Bloom admitted that Rosalind was someone he would have liked to have met as a young man. If Bloom were to see the Pasadena Playhouse's Rosalind, he might change his tune. Here, Rosalind is played by a man.

Actor Christopher Liam Moore was allegedly a very fine Olivia a few seasons back in a Cornerstone production of Twelfth Night set on a Navy base. I didn't see it, but as those who saw Mark Rylance's Olivia at UCLA Live! a few seasons back can attest, a male Olivia can be not only believable, but magical.

A male Rosalind could work too, perhaps--remember, the plot of As You Like It involves Rosalind dressing up as a man and going by the name &quotGanymede;" for much of the play; but as concocted by Alison Carey and Bill Rauch, this interpretation of Rosalind--who dresses up like a cowboy and goes by the name &quotLoverboy;&quot--does; not work at all.

Moore's performance, with his effete gestures and falsetto voice, is part of the problem; but I feel that most of the blame falls on the shoulders of the director and the writer. No I don't mean Shakespeare, I mean Alison Carey who has adapted the language of the play as well as the setting. What does that mean? Well, Dick Cheney hunting jokes for one thing, plus references to NASCAR, the Rose Bowl, you name it. Carey has rewritten Shakespeare in contemporary lingo. For example the famous: &quotAll; the world's a stage" soliloquy is now spoken by a TV producer who says: &quotAll; the world's a show and all the men and women merely guest stars."

In terms of rewriting the bard, that line represents Carey's tinkering at its cleverest. The creative team seems to have hijacked Shakespeare's language in the service of making the play a polemic in support of same-sex marriage.

Even George Bernard Shaw, who was an advocate of theater that supported anti-puritan causes--and famously contemptuous of As You Like It (saying it pandered to cheap moralizing)--would likely not think that this &quotCalifornia; Concoction" was an improvement. Shaw deplored impresarios who cut Shakespeare's dialogue, so one can only imagine what he would think of rewriting it.

Luckily, Shaw is better served than Shakespeare in the valleys north of Los Angeles. The Glendale company A Noise Within is presenting Shaw's early satire Arms and the Man. The play is about mercenaries and major-generals in the Balkans prior to World War I, which may sound dreary; but in Shaw's hands just about anything can be fresh and funny--even the Bulgarian bourgeoisie. A Noise Within does nothing clever or creative with the text or setting--director Michael Murray has simply cast the roles with good actors, then staged the work with clarity and grace.

This production of Arms and the Man shows that well-rehearsed actors and sober stagecraft is what makes classic plays accessible to audiences today--not splashy, topical gimmicks. When staging Shaw and Shakespeare, its usually best to leave the big ideas to them.

George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man runs through May 20 at A Noise Within; As U Lyk It plays until April 16 at the Pasadena Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW.

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