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I vaguely recall—it’s been a few years—my 11th-grade English teacher playing Joan Baez and Bob Dylan records in class to persuade his verse-averse students that rhyme wasn’t necessarily loathsome. My recollection is that, although this exercise provided a welcome break from routine, it did little to convince us that either Emily Dickinson or Shakespeare was in any way cool.
I’m told that current teachers use rap lyrics in much the same way, probably to much the same effect, but I don’t recall the device being tried theatrically hereabouts. So it’s intriguing that Jennifer Nelson’s urban As You Like It is taking a stab at blending the two forms of poetry on stage. Although I’m nowhere nearly schooled enough in poetry to know whether a hiphop tune bears any real structural resemblance to a sonnet, I’d say KenYatta Rogers’ energetic rapping of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 makes as good a case for the notion as can reasonably be made, while simultaneously demonstrating why the ploy isn’t commonplace.
Rogers plays Orlando, the guy who wins a wrestling match in As You Like It and then gets banished to the Forest of Arden where he meets up—unawares—with his true love, who has disguised herself as a boy. In Nelson’s version, the wrestling match is a televised WWF bout, Arden’s bohemian-infested woods is Central Park near the entrance to the Delacorte Theater, and Orlando’s true love, Rosalind (Kamilah Forbes), looks enough like Orlando’s other homeys when she dons a down vest and knit cap to make his confusion plausible.
So far, so good. Then comes the sonnet. There’s no particular reason Orlando should be rapping, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” but it doesn’t seem all that odd when he starts. A thudding bassline from some nearby boombox primes his pump, and before you quite register that his speech has turned rhythmic, he’s punching at the air and bouncing on the balls of his feet in that loose, back-and-forth, openhanded way hiphoppers do. Iambic…dithyrambic…who knows what the meter’s doing? If the syllables fall oddly on the beat, he’s still managing to sell it reasonably well.
But that’s all he’s doing, really: selling it. The sonnet is a performance, a digression, separate from the main business at hand. Interpolated into a script that has other things on its mind, it’s not part of the narrative, it doesn’t advance the plot, and it doesn’t even reflect particularly on Orlando’s thoughts. It’s just what a rap song would be if you heard it in a park: a distraction.
And not a terribly welcome one in an evening that seems more intent on finding odd takes on the Bard’s characters than on finding takes that actually work dramatically. The two principals are very sharp—Rogers is sexy, funny, and persuasively natural as Orlando, and Forbes is a good match for him as a spunky but not-quite-sure-of-herself Rosalind—and a few of the secondary characters make real sense of the production’s urban milieu. The clownish Touchstone, for instance, is boisterously transformed by Michael Glenn into a street-smart white kid who’s so deep into hiphop that he’s internalized its every mannerism. And kudos to whoever decided his beloved Audrey should be played as a deliciously dim transvestite hooker by Flordelino Lagundino. Their scenes together are priceless.
But there’s also a riot of irrelevant accents in the production’s Central Park melting pot, from the Brooklyn nasalizing that Michael Miyazaki unwisely attempts on every 10th or 11th “woid” to the adoption by Christopher Henley of Eastern-European inflections for an interpretation of Jacques (the melancholy fellow who opines that “All the world’s a stage”) that’s very nearly an impersonation of NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu. He’s fine, but the accent is just peculiar.
Further toward the fringes of the cast, the performances get actively messy, with weak casting undermining Nelson’s attempts to populate the play with folks who look half as real as the impressively solid pedestrian bridge that dominates Elizabeth Baldwin’s setting. Even if you think, as I do, that the production concept would be better served by an abstract set—even just a black curtain—and more concentration on performances, you have to hand it to the design team. Everyone’s done naturalistic wonders on a budget, from costumer Lea Umberger, whose duds are so personality-positioning that you often feel as if you know characters before they open their mouths, to Dan Covey, whose evocatively dappled lighting lends the evening depth and texture.
Actually, it’s easy to understand why the two companies co-producing this As You Like It would want to mount it as solidly as possible. Washington Shakespeare Company is now just a few months shy of being ousted from the Clark Street Playhouse after six years of establishing the place as one of Arlington’s primary artistic spaces. And the itinerant African Continuum Theatre Company (of which Nelson is artistic director) has been bounced from pillar to post for the last five seasons, sometimes having to close a production just as it’s catching on with patrons—last season’s fine Africa-inflected Hecuba, for instance—because its time is up in its rented performance space. Who can blame these folks for wanting their work to look anchored and permanent? CP