Taproot associate artistic director Karen Lund sets Shakespeare’s As You Like It in an America sent reeling by the severe cultural and social upheaval of the late ’60s, a time not only of free love and communal experimentation but also of a growing disgust for the establishment and the yawning of a new and all-but-unbridgeable generation gap. You wouldn’t know it, though, from the play’s first few minutes, which open on a smugly Edenic scene that smacks more of Eisenhowerish exurbs than of Lyndon Johnson’s handed-down Great Society. When the two sons of the recently deceased Sir Rowland de Bois stroll onstage—the elder of whom is Oliver (Darrell Olson), who had denied Orlando (Aaron Lamb) his rightful inheritance of wealth, standing, and education—they look more than anything like swingers at the country club, all fresh-scrubbed and cotton-white. The only hint we get that this indeed could be the Age of Aquarius are the opening bars of the Young Rascals’ mellow hit “Groovin’.”
This, then, is a very specific interpretation of the psychedelic ’60s: free of drugs and billy clubs and focused with an overweening nostalgia on the era’s more Whitmanesque vibes of brotherly (and sisterly) love and the full expression of individual freedom. Slyly, Lund uses the play’s opening scene to establish the massive rift between the political elite and a literally exiled youth movement.
In contrast to this upper-crust cronyism is the Forest of Arden, where all the victims of the usurping Duke Frederick have fled. In Lund’s vision, this is where the spirit of the age has really taken hold, as all the hippies and yippies and free lovers frolic and cavort among the gifts of nature. If Arden could be said to have a leader, it is the deposed Duke Senior (Robert Gallaher), looking something like a medieval Abbie Hoffman and preaching the simple life of transcendentalism among the roots and berries—in other words, he’s the King Hippie. Into his realm flee Celia (Anne Kennedy) and Rosalind (Marianne Savell), who is dressed as a boy and therefore unrecognizable to her love, Orlando. There are also the shepherd Silvius (Patrick Allcorn) and the woman he loves, Phebe (Aubrey Bean), who for her part pines for Ganymede (Rosalind in disguise); and, of course, the court jester Touchstone (Bob Borwick) and his love, Audrey (Kim Morris).
This being a Shakespeare comedy, there are all manner of cross-connections, mistaken identities, and romantic romps, all of which translate surprisingly well to the free-love setting. Lund’s particular take on the decade meshes well with the zany antics and general mood of eventual well-being that marks As You Like It—or perhaps one should say, As You, Like, Like It, Man. The cast appears to buy into the Hair-like mood of uplift and liberation: The performances are loose and nonchalant, marked by a kind of effervescence and frivolity it’s difficult not to enjoy. Borwick is especially good; with his unbounded energy and exaggerated gestures, he seems to perfectly capture what Lund is after, an unchallenging and unsentimental glance back at an era recast in the halcyon glow of optimism and endless possibilities. “Love is merely a madness,” warns Rosalind, but here it’s a gentle breed of madness, one shorn of any bad trips.