The cross-dressing heroines of Shakespeare’s comedies create a new social relation by virtue of their masquerades and the secret knowledge they hold. They are thus empowered to influence events to a degree otherwise unpermitted of their sex, and so fulfill Beatrice’s repeated plaint in Much Ado About Nothing: “O that I were a man.” The foremost orchestrator among the cross-dressers is doubtless Rosalind in As You Like It, Viola in Twelfth Night being caught up in a more complicated circumstance that, in view of her limited knowledge of it, is harder to influence.
So it seems to me wholly appropriate that Carly Howard both directs UNDER THE GREENWOOD TREE, a musical adaptation of As You Like It by Tyler Phillips, and plays Rosalind, a role she inhabits with assurance and whose nuances she grasps to a tee. In a cast of green talent overall, Howard alone convinced me that she could carry her part in a mature production of the original play, although Michelle Siracusa as Phebe (especially) and Don Wilson as Jaques (almost) came close.
The youngish ensemble is remarkably talented nonetheless, each playing both a part and an instrument: all the world is both a stage and an orchestra. What this charming little experiment does is remind us of the musicality of As You Like It in the first place (it has the most songs of any Shakespearean play) and of the affinity that the comedies and romances, and some of the histories and tragedies too, have with English folk tradition. I kept thinking of Thomas Hardy as I watched UNDER THE GREENWOOD TREE and only realized after a bit of googling that Hardy had borrowed the phrase (from one of the songs) for the title of an early novel.
The world of this adaptation is that of rural mummers and folk musicians from the British Isles to the Americas, in which the rhythms of nature, the sounds and scents of the woodlands, and the idealized simplicity of agrarian life inflect the language that is sung and spoken, giving to the most fanciful of plots the benediction of the forest. If William Morris’s crafts movement had a modern theatrical equivalent, this production would be a sample of it: the most prominent set piece is an artisanal cabinet inscribed with phrases from the Shakespearean folkway.
The story told by As You Like It need not be recapped in detail, but it is about love and exile and the dispossession of desire, all achieved and corrected when the wisdom of the feminine is empowered through its adoption of the garb of the masculine. There is much to be improved and yet to be realized in UNDER THE GREENWOOD TREE, but it deserves the chance to do both, and I hope that Howard, and her great little Rosalind, will be a part of it going forward.