As You Like It: The Big Flush
nytheatre.com review by Kelly Aliano
July 20, 2008
As You Like It: The Big Flush, directed by Stephen Wisker and currently being presented by The Dark Lady Players at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, suggests that the work of William Shakespeare may actually have been written by Amelia Bassano Lanier, supposedly the "Dark Lady" referred to in Shakespeare's sonnets. In order to illustrate this thesis, the entirely female troupe acts out Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It, interspersing explanations of the various, and sometimes obscure, cultural and literary references that Lanier included in the play. These references range from Greek mythology to Biblical allusions and Christ imagery to Sir John Harrington, the inventor of the flush toilet (otherwise known as the Jakes in the Elizabethan era).
Although it is interesting to be aware of the various metaphors, symbols, and motifs once they are pointed out, they do not really alter one's overall understanding of As You Like It as a play. It is interesting to note the gesture toward Christ's passion, for example, that is hidden within the text of the play, but As You Like It is still a play that seems principally concerned with mistaken identities and the complications of wooing even when such allusions are made evident. Additionally, the claim that Lanier wrote Shakespeare's work is fascinating to consider from a literary standpoint, but this change in authorship does nothing to alter fundamentally the comic structure of the play. The breaks in the action of As You Like It that are used to elucidate the scholarly arguments and observations add little to this piece's dramatic potential as play in itself (i.e., as a work beyond, or separate from, Shakespeare's original play). The performance of the scenes from As You Like It are quite entertaining, but the fourth-wall-breaking explanations, although often comical, come off feeling like they belong more in an academic setting than in a theatrical one.
The performances are all fine; most notably, Kate Murray, who plays Rosalind, seems truly worthy of the Shakespearean text before her. The actresses tend to falter, however, when doubling roles or switching between characters. In such cases, it is often hard to distinguish which characters are on stage (a particularly confusing moment of role-sharing occurs in the play's final scene, when the actress who has been playing Silvius throughout is now onstage as Phoebe). Beyond this, much of the action happens while the actors are seated on the stage floor. Due to the nature of the Where Eagles Dare theatre space, where this show is being performed, unless an audience member is seated in the front row, these scenes are virtually impossible to see. There are many clever props used throughout, which make both the play and the references being demonstrated more entertaining and much clearer, and the use of telling costume pieces helps the audience to determine which characters are on stage.
The use of only female actors is an interesting choice for the play; it reinforces the world of As You Like It as a feminine one as well as intensifying some of the gender confusion built into Shakespeare's comic work. It is enjoyable to watch Kirsta Peterson, who seems to stand in as a manifestation of Amelia Bassano Lanier, take on the role of Touchstone, who was supposedly written self-referentially by the Dark Lady herself (basanos is the Greek name for Touchstone). It is a clever reminder of the playwright's constant presence in his—or her—work. It is the original text of As You Like It, however, that shines in this production. Shakespeare himself only appears in this play as a mocked voice, a cardboard cutout, and not as a full character. Despite this, it is the language that we have come to think of as Shakespearean that contains the most artistic beauty in this hour-and-a-half production. The work which we call Shakespeare, whomever it may have been written by, would be compelling, meaningful, and poignant with or without our literary research and analysis added on to it.