It is a moment of rising inequality. The widening gap between aristocratic haves and discontented have-nots threatens to replace the social contract with a powder keg.
As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s most popular works, an homage to rural life filled with clowning, comically mannered royals and convoluted gender reversals.
But the play is more than just a pastoral romance. So says Annamaria Pileggi, senior lecturer in drama in the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences, who will direct the show beginning Friday, April 20, in Edison Theatre. (Performances run through Sunday, April 29.)
Though Shakespeare set As You Like It in 15th-century France, “There is something about the greed and corruption of the world of the court, and the simplicity but also the poverty of the forest, that suggests the French Revolution,” Pileggi says.
On the other hand, Pileggi notes that the character of Corin, a tenant shepherd who attempts to sell his master’s farm, recalls the current foreclosure crisis.
“There are a number of elements that feel very contemporary,” she says.
So. The Bastille, or Zuccotti Park?
To square that production design circle, Pileggi and dramaturg Gabriela Schneider have taken a cue from the Steampunk movement, adopting a basically 18th-century look but including a few comically anachronistic touches from our own time: whistles, air horns, picketing protestors and rolling suitcases, to name a few.
The story centers on Rosalind, a young French noblewoman whose father, Duke Senior, was usurped and banished by his power-hungry brother, Duke Ferdinand.
Though Ferdinand resents his niece’s continued popularity among the people, Rosalind remains at court thanks to her friendship with Ferdinand’s daughter, Celia — until, that is, she falls in love with Orlando, the neglected youngest son of a rival clan.
Banished by her uncle, Rosalind disguises herself as a man and flees with Celia to the Forest of Arden, where, unbeknownst to her, a disguised Orlando takes shelter from his own bloodthirsty brother.
“What really drew me to As You Like It was the theme of mirroring,” Pileggi says. “In terms of gender, in terms of court versus forest, in terms of certain characters. There are two Dukes, two Jaques, two courts, two sets of brothers.”
Pileggi carries the theme through much of the show’s casting. Both Dukes are played by Eric Gustafson, while Mitch Eagles pulls double-duty as the noble Le Beau and the shepherd Silvius. Local equity actor Whit Reichart is Corin as well as Orlando’s servant, Adam. And, in a mirroring of Rosalind’s cross-dressing disguise, both the lords of Frederick’s court and the men of Senior’s forest are played by female actors in drag.
The spare stage design, by guest artist Otis Sweezey, professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, mimics the open platform of Shakespeare’s own Globe Theatre, with one Baroque addition: a set of vertical mirrors that serve as columns during court scenes and as trees during those set in the forest.
“I’ve added a prologue, in which we see peasants with ‘99 percent’ signs,” Pileggi says with a smile.
“With the mirrors on stage, the audience is literally going to see its own reflection.”