Fiddling with Shakespearean text is a dangerous game, even if nobody’s likely to get physically hurt by doing it. Still, just think about it: the gall! To imagine one can improve upon that guy they call the “Bard,” the greatest writer the English language has ever known! How dare one take “As You Like It,” arguably Shakespeare’s best comedy, and by contemporizing it and throwing in not a drip but a deluge of accessible references make it … extremely funny. And relevant, passionate, philosophical and political, and a dash naughty, just as the play should be but so rarely is.
The Cornerstone Theater Company production at the Pasadena Playhouse, set in Pasadena and the Mojave Desert and subtitled “A California Concoction,” may not be Shakespeare as you thought you wanted it, but, as long as a blatantly pro-gay marriage perspective doesn’t offend, it really is as you’ll like it.
But please, don’t try this at home. Cornerstone, which was founded by Alison Carey and Bill Rauch, the writer and director, respectively, of “As You Like It,” has been at this type of irreverent endeavor for a while. Even so, their productions certainly haven’t always, if ever, hit the mark as well as this one does. A previous “Twelfth Night” set at a naval base was relevant too, but strained and self-conscious and not funny. It was ultimately just one more gimmicky concept production of Shakespeare.
“As You Like It: A California Concoction” is much, much more than that. The rewriting works wonders for the play, bringing its characters fully to life and remaining shockingly faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of Shakespeare’s work. It helps, of course, that the outstanding ensemble is so clearly enjoying themselves. Kate Mulligan, for example, plays a whole bunch of small parts, each one more amusing than the one before.
The city scenes that start this play take place not at some royal court but behind a rose-laden fence. This is where Orlando (Leith Burke) tries to get his fair share of his inheritance from his selfish sister Olivia (Lisa Tharps), and where she in turn determines to see him killed. While in the original this plan involved a wrestler named Charles, in Carey’s adaptation Charles (Mulligan) has been transformed into a buffoonishly arrogant race car driver who plans to guide Orlando into a terrible accident when the two face off.
The race itself is cleverly staged by Rauch from the perspective of the onlookers, who include Rosalind (Christopher Liam Moore), daughter of the recently deposed duke — oops, mayor — and her cousin Celia (Page Leong). Just moments before, upon meeting Orlando and urging him to cancel the competition, Rosalind had been hit with a whoosh that resembled the wind from a race car, but clearly symbolized an instant love connection. Love, in this production, is that kind of powerful natural force, beyond the scope of rational explanation.
Following the race, Rosalind is banished from Pasadena by her crazed uncle (Gerald Hiken). Accompanied by Celia, she dresses as a man — in this case a cowboy named Loverboy — and heads out to the desert to find her father (Hiken, again), who has set up an idyllic retirement community.
Set designer Lynn Jeffries doesn’t deliver a realistic Palm Springs for this world apart; it’s more like the desert of a Roadrunner cartoon, with swirly rocks and giant cacti and the occasional pop-up diner. Some more whooshes of love at first sight, and other transformations, feel quite at home in this sunny and stylized environment, and this is where the disguised Rosalind will tutor the befuddled Orlando in love.
Rosalind is among the pluckiest of Shakespeare’s heroines, and Moore does her great justice. Not so much because he demonstrates her strength and smarts but because he’s just as comfortable with her more traditionally feminine vulnerabilities. “Oh my God,” he blurts upon hearing that Orlando is in the area and about to arrive before her, “I need makeup!”
With a man playing a woman playing a man, it’s easy for Carey and Rauch to score points on the universality of love, but they go a lot further than that. The court jester, Touchstone (a terrific Jonathan Del Arco), is presented here, with extreme cleverness, as a standup comic and political speechwriter. He’s also gay, and rather than falling for the innocent Audrey, he lands in love with a mechanic Aubrey (Benajah Cobb) and riffs away on gay marriage.
In addition to Touchstone, “As You Like It” features another of Shakespeare’s most likeable crackpots, the depressive Jaques. As written by Carey and performed with superb downbeat, deadpan delivery by Peter Howard, Jaques is a former Hollywood producer who has exiled himself to the desert but still dresses all in black.
The character Jaques dishes out soliloquies rife with offbeat, self-serving wisdom. In traditional hands, these often come off as too esoteric to deliver the laughs intended. No worries about that here. “All the world’s a show,” says the depressive Jaques, in a variation on one of the most famous lines in the Shakespearean canon, “and all the men and women merely guest stars.” As a substitute for the seven ages of man, from infant through death, Carey philosophizes on human life as if it were a television series, first a cartoon, then an eager-to-please sitcom, all the way through its life as drama and toward final cancellation. It’s the height of Carey’s success that this comes off as both amusing and emotionally affecting.
The adaptation is just rife with these kinds of successes of substitution, some of a politically engaged variety (Bush and Rumsfeld take a beating) and others just zany yet very Californian (a green alien presides over the denouement). Rauch makes sure that they’re funny in and of themselves and yet always bring light to the play rather than distract from it.
This is Rauch’s last production as artistic director of Cornerstone. For his farewell, he’s directed “As You Like It” to a fare-thee-well.