'As You Like It' - SF Playhouse's gender-fluid frolic

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday December 20, 2022
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Andy (Ezra Reaves) and Touchstone (Nicholas Yenson) sing a love ballad accompanied by backup dancers in San Francisco Playhouse's musical version of 'As You Like It.'<br>(photo: Jessica Palopoli)
Andy (Ezra Reaves) and Touchstone (Nicholas Yenson) sing a love ballad accompanied by backup dancers in San Francisco Playhouse's musical version of 'As You Like It.'
(photo: Jessica Palopoli)

Trend alert: When masked wrestler Bronco (Gorin Norquist) takes to the ring in the frisky San Francisco Playhouse production of "As You Like It" —freely adapted from William Shakespeare by Shaina Taub and Laura Woolery and running through January 14— his efforts to intimidate his rival, Orlando, include puffing out his pecs and giving himself a vigorous two-fisted nipple pinch.

"As You Like It" is one of three musicals to open in the Bay Area this month that feature machismo demonstrated through self-administered titty-twisters. (Bronco's cohorts in areolal arrogance are the dentist, Oren Scrivello, in TheatreWorks' "Little Shop of Horrors" and the titular character in the national tour of "Beetlejuice").

As Jacques (played with unflappable punk panache by Deonalis Arocho Resto) explains in the "As You Like It" prologue, "all the world's a stage." And San Francisco is all the world's staging ground for the evolving expression of gender and sexuality. World be warned: Peacocking torso-onanism seems to be on the come-up.

Lest you propose I wander too far afield of the Arden path, let's be clear that the Shakespeare-cum-Shaina world of "As You Like It," too, significantly diverges from its origins, meandering into modern matters of romantic and sexual expression.

Whilst the comedy of the original hinges on mistaken identities, this inarguably trendy 21st-century version righteously argues that traditional conceptions of gender identity are themselves a mistake.

Exiles in the Arden Forest in San Francisco Playhouse's musical version of 'As You Like It.'
(photo: Jessica Palopoli)  

In both iterations, Orlando pursues his crush, Rosalind, into the woods, only to find himself befriended, and inexplicably smitten, by a fellow named Ganymede (Haha! It's Rosalind, in male disguise! Don't worry why; he/she's a prize).

Back in Shakespeare's day, the notion of Orlando being attracted to another man would itself have been a screwball source of guilt-free laughter. While contemporary audiences can appreciate this humor from a historical and intellectual remove, it requires a bit of real-time mental reframing which reduces the immediacy of the hilarity. Even the Bard isn't entirely timeless.

Director Bill English smartly reduces this disconnect by casting willowy, twinkling Nikita Burshsteyn as Orlando and striking, square-jawed River Navaille as Rosalind. Their natural physiognomy helps undermine stereotypical gender expectations and amps up ambiguity from the get-go. Orlando's masc mask drops even further during two giggly musical interludes in which he fronts a boy-bandish gang of fluffy pink woodland creatures.

But even as this production's "Love is Love" subtext bubbles up loud and queer, adaptors Taub and Woolery double down on their messaging, taking further liberties with secondary characters. Shakespeare's country maiden Audrey and shepherd Silvius are gender-switched to Andy (Ezra Reaves) and Silvia (Sophia Alawi), making their respective end-of-show couplings with Touchstone (Nicholas Yenson, playing it fey to uproarious effect) and Phoebe (Emily Dwyer) into same-sex affairs.

Taub, whose similarly contemporized "12th Night" delighted on this same stage last year, exhibits a topiarist's care in trimming and reshaping Shakespeare's original script. If her refrain-heavy folk-pop musical numbers don't serve to advance the plot like the best theater songs, they effectively accentuate the overall mood of whimsy and romance.

With its gender fluidity and general festivity, San Francisco Playhouse's "As You Like It" offers a holiday season evening uniquely in sync with our city's spirit.

'As You Like It' at SF Playhouse, $15-$100. Thru Jan. 14. 450 Post St. www.sfplayhouse.org

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