Cal Shakes' 'As You Like It' Evokes Ghost Ship and Tent Cities

Like many Shakespearian comedies, As You Like It begins in discord and works it way to a tense happiness. More so than the tragedies, these rueful takes on love’s travails feel emblematic of the times, or at least our most hopeful version of them. Director Desdemona Chiang’s class-conscious meditation on this run-away-to-the-forest-and-slip-into-a-better-world fantasia at California Shakespeare Theateris fascinating, though uncertainly executed.

We begin in the court of Duke Frederick, who has wrested political control from his elder brother, Duke Senior, both played by James Carpenter with his customary élan and precision. The fissure in the first political family seems to have nestled its way into all the relationships of the kingdom, from the best to the worst. On the side of the best, there's Rosalind and her cousin Celia, who adore each other despite the rift between their fathers; on the worst, look to Orlando and his brother Oliver, who are in a battle over the younger’s rightful standing in the world.

We sense the natural nobility of Rosalind and Orlando, and so when for various reasons they're both forced into exile, it feels unjust but also a wild opportunity for new freedoms. And that’s where Chiang takes a daring gambit: the forest of Arden, which serves as the domain of Duke Frederick’s brother, and the place where our daring exiles find themselves upon being banished, is not a forest at all; it's a derelict warehouse.

The transformation of the set from the verdant Arcadia of the court to the industrial landscape of Oakland -- both displaced and bohemian -- is a breathtaking transposition. The production feels like it's going to take off with it. The most beautiful scene of the evening is when the exiled Duke speaks to his lords of the joys of living outside the court: “Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile/Hath not old custom made this life more sweet/Than that of painted pomp?”

Well, that's the question of the day, isn't it? And you can’t help but think of the Ghost Ship and its many doubles, the tented homeless encampments under 980, and all the provisional communities that find living in the court of the Bay Area impossible. And so people seek out communities that are both more precarious and fulfilling. Concepts like these often feel tacked on, conceits without resonance. It’s amazing how easily the play slides into Chiang’s vision of the utopia that can be found in a dystopia.

But for all the thoughtfulness of the ideas, this As You Like It fails to achieve the verve and life it promises. Many of the problems come from Chiang’s inability to sustain any kind of dramatic momentum from scene to scene. It’s not so much how the scenes play out, but rather the transitions that are a problem. The few that do work -- a rapid-fire costume change that takes us from the exiled Duke’s warehouse to his brother’s chambers in a flash of an instant -- are striking and you wonder why the rest of the production is so lack.

You want the force of Chiang’s insights to suffuse every aspect of the play, and yet nothing feels properly put together. The visual field is muddied, and the stage is at one and the same time too cramped and too large. In a clever updating, Orlando spray paints Rosalind’s name all over the warehouse set. Yet Patrick Russell, who’s terrific in the role, can’t seem to navigate the set to make the grand gestures necessary for his character and the play. It’s a wonderful idea, yet it falters under unsure execution.

Shakespeare’s realism is vast and supple. It contains not just grand visions of the world, but also the granular details of actual life. You can feel this production opening the door to a world we haven’t quite seen and connections we haven’t quite made. But just as surely, it shies away from all the sinew and grit that might have made every last bit of it splendidly real.

California Shakespeare Theater's 'As You Like It' runs through June 18 at Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. For tickets and information click here.