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Making Shakespeare Their Own, Serious and Silly

In a note in the “Arden/Everywhere” program, the play’s director, Jessica Bauman describes “As You Like It” as “as a play that’s always kind of bugged me.” To make friends with the play, she writes, “I started thinking about it as a refugee story.” Unfortunately, that’s a story that “As You Like It” both encourages and actively resists.

In Ms. Bauman’s production, which mixes professional actors and college students, Rosalind (Helen Cespedes), the daughter of a banished duke and Celia (Liba Vaynberg), her cousin, still flee a French duchy for the Forest of Arden. But don’t expect a dewy pastoral. This forest is a refugee camp, a tumble of wooden pallets and cracked cinderblocks. Its inhabitants busy themselves filling plastic jugs at a water pump and checking a bulletin board in the hope that some new country has accepted them. The uses of adversity are not so sweet.

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From left, Anthony Cason Jr., Denisse Jimenez, Liba Vaynberg and Helen Cespedes in “Arden/Everywhere.”

Credit
Russell Rowland

After the intermission, several actors in the ensemble step forward and briefly detail how they arrived in America. “When I got here as a little kid, I was so nervous, I could only eat Wonder Bread and drink water,” a young man says. “I feel blessed,” a young woman says. “I am here because of the sacrifices of my mom and my ancestors.”

These brief speeches are the most affecting in the show and their consequence hints at some of the project’s problems. In effect, “As You Like It” isn’t a great fit for the tale that Ms. Bauman wants to tell. The substance of the plot — the political machinations, the romantic entanglements — doesn’t seem to interest her. Neither does the verse. And the comedy is a non-starter.

What does interest her is the refugee setting, but aside from some inspired details — the character of Corin is now a bilking shopkeeper — this vision of the Forest of Arden is unproductively at odds with the play. Yes, Shakespeare’s Arden is a weird place — there are lions and snakes and wandering monks. But it’s not intended as a bleak or unwelcoming one. It’s a shelter from the world, not a further hurt.

Ms. Bauman has altered a few words in the play’s last scene so that instead of nearly everyone returning happily to court, only the nobility get visas. The adjustment comes too late to really resonate. Unlike the joyous “As You Like It” produced by Public Works this summer, “Arden/Everywhere” sticks staunchly to Shakespeare’s text even when the words and plots just weigh it down. If it had been more daring, the play might have found its own language to tell its own stories — the strange, eventful histories its own cast members supply.

Textual fidelity does not seem to have kept the authors of the highly adulterated “Desperate Measures” up nights. Unlike the Elevator Repair Service production playing downtown, almost nothing remains of the “Measure for Measure” text — not the names, not the setting, not even much in the way of moral argument. About the only thing “Desperate Measures” hangs onto is the premise behind a nun’s being asked to bed a tyrant in order to free her brother.

It’s sometime in the 1800s in the Arizona territory when fiery Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan) shoots a mustached creep, probably in self-defense, and is sentenced to be hanged. His sister, Susanna (Emma Degerstedt), is about to make her devotions. But the good-hearted sheriff (Peter Saide) convinces her to appeal for her brother’s life. Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman, and see what I mean about the bad jokes?) sees how cute she looks in a wimple and tries to grab her by the rosary.

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From left, Joseph Wallace, Lauren Molina and Justin Rothberg in “Desperate Measures.”

Credit
Carol Rosegg

Reluctant to agree to her own rape, Susanna and the sheriff inveigle Bella Rose (Lauren Molina), a stripper and occasional prostitute, to fluff the governor’s pillows instead. Gary Marachek’s nihilist preacher rounds out the winning cast.

The songs, with music by David Friedman and book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg, are enthusiastically ordinary, except for the opening number, “The Ballad of Johnny Blood,” which is worse. Not even Tex Ritter could have saved it. The book is in rhyming couplets. The gags are hoary. (And whore-y.) Under Bill Castellino’s direction, somehow it’s a delight.

There’s less than an ounce of Shakespeare in it, but that probably won’t have the swan of Stratford rolling in his berth. Bill was a guy who knew how to steal what he needed to and ditch what he didn’t. That’s the spirit of the terrible, wonderful “Desperate Measures”: Have iamb, will travel.

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