This past week, students of the SUNY New Paltz theatre department performed William Shakespeare’s fabled play, “As You Like It” in the college’s McKenna Theater. This production marked the department’s 2022-2023 mainstage debut.
For those unfamiliar, “As You Like It” follows a young noblewoman named Rosalind, who instantly falls in love with Orlando, the chivalrous and modest son of the recently deceased Sir Roland de Boys. While Orlando flees the kingdom after hearing that his brother, Oliver, is plotting to kill him, Rosalind is similarly ostracized by Duke Frederick for fear she is trying to usurp his rule. Rosalind is accompanied by her cousin, Celia, into the Forest of Arden and disguise themselves for their safety — Rosalind as the boy shepherd Ganymede and Celia as his sister Aliena. Soon after their banishments, Orlando, posting love lyrics meant for Rosalind through the forest, encounters his lover disguised as Ganymede. Unaware that the shepherd is truly Rosalind, Orlando is challenged to prove the strength of his infatuation for her by wooing Ganymede as if he were Rosalind.
The SUNY New Paltz adaptation was directed by Dr. Isabel Smith-Bernstein and performed by students. The full cast and creative team can be found here.
A major theme of “As You Like It” is discovering one’s true self. In Dr. Smith-Bernstein’s director’s note, she points out how this production, despite its traditional origin, discusses self-discovery through gender and sexual orientation. “This production emphasizes that implicit queerness,” she said. “Shakespeare already disrupted the gender binary with a man playing a woman pretending to be a man who then plays a woman, and we have simply pushed it further.”
Dr. Smith-Bernstein was incredibly thrilled to have the opportunity to put on this production. “I love this play,” she told The Oracle. “‘As You Like It’ felt like the right Shakespeare play to do because it’s funny and warm and affirming — something we could all use right now.” She also took numerous creative liberties with her adaptation, cutting about 12,000 words from the play to get it to its 90 minute run time. While Dr. Smith-Bernstein did have to scrap the entire character of Audrey and rearrange some scenes for clarity of storytelling, Shakespeare’s language is still preserved, barring a few small changes.
What resonated the most after watching this adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic is how comfortable and enthusiastic each cast member was with performing their respective roles. Every actor looked to have great fun during this production, which helped to create a lively atmosphere throughout the theater. These traits flourished whenever Duke Senior’s band of royal followers performed a musical piece together. The audience could see just how happy this ensemble obviously was to be onstage for each one of their scenes, whether it be with their powerful singing or with their fluid body language. Whenever these castmates reappeared onstage, I was delighted; their charismatic energy was contagious and every one of their animated performances was a treat.
That is not to say that the remaining cast members did not do as excellent of a job — far from it, in fact. Tes Maxwell’s portrayal of Rosalind was superb, and it was such a delight to see them perform. Maxwell commanded each scene that they were in and possessed all the necessary qualities of being the production’s lead. They looked so effortlessly relaxed onstage, never seeming unsure of what their character was supposed to say or act. Maxwell was the perfect casting call to portray this character and embodied Rosalind’s quick wittiness and resilience with ease.
To commend the entire cast, I found it impressive that they were all able to portray characters who speak in such an intricate dialect with no notable mistakes. Shakespeare’s plays are known for their complex dialogue, and I found it remarkable that each cast member was able to depict such developed characters while not stumbling over the difficult jargon. I think the casts’ ability to speak in such an unconventional manner while still having fun with their respective roles is a great indication of how professional they are as actors.
Usually, the easiest talking points when reviewing a play or a movie are its actors and their respective performances, as they are typically the most obvious aspects of such media. However, I would like to spotlight costume designers Charlotte Palmer-Lane and Cassie Smith for designing such wonderful attire. I felt like a lot of the costumes really helped make the play’s characters and were an extension of them; for instance, I thought the variety of color on Touchstone’s skirt combined with the dark-red plaid buttoned-down matched the colorful personality one would associate with a court jester. Palmer-Lane and Smith made sure to design attire that faithfully represents the regal adornments found in the early 17th century, helping with the immersive feel the play strives for.
The SUNY New Paltz production of “As You Like It” is an enthusiastic take on the Shakespeare classic. The entire cast and creative department had put in amazing work to deliver a fantastic retelling of an iconic production. The performances felt genuine and fun, all while delivering the complex dialogue Shakespearean works are known for. Behind the scenes, the creative team ensured to retain the pastoral values “As You Like It” is built upon, whether it be with the realistic costumes designed by Charlotte Palmer-Lane and Cassie Smith, or with director Dr. Isabel Smith-Bernstein sticking with the messages that still permeate today’s society.
Dr. Smith-Bernstein was mesmerized by the casts’ performances. “Watching the cast find their characters throughout rehearsal was incredible,” she said. “I’m also blown away by their dexterity with the language and willingness to throw everything at the wall.”
The next production performed by the SUNY New Paltz theatre department is “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress,” debuting on Friday, Dec. 2 at Parker Theatre. With how spectacular “As You Like It” was, I am certain you will not want to miss your chance to see this upcoming show!