I suppose there is a goodly amount of academic ink to be spilt on the topic of Shakespearean performance by an all-male cast in the 21st century. You could bandy about words like "postmodern" and "deconstruction" or approach it from a gender studies/queer-theory angle to examine patriarchal hegemony. Good Lord, As You Like It is a treasure trove of self-reflexive homoeroticism! But after seeing poortom productions's staging of one of Shakespeare's best-loved comedies, all such speculation can be resolved with one overarching theme: men in dresses are funny.
The young company's inaugural season is now officially under way at HERE Arts Center with this, its first production. Just like Edward Hall's Propeller troupe (which currently can be seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), poortom has taken a novel approach by doing Shakespeare the way Shakespeare did, with no girls allowed. In doing so, it has become New York's only all-male Shakespeare company, drawing the attention of high-profile Tony winners and Royal Shakespeare Company members, who sit on the company's artistic advisory board.
The intent of poortom Artistic Director Joe Plummer and As You Like It director Moritz von Stuelpnagel is, however, more than just going all Monty Python on us. For this production, their vision includes moving past lowbrow thrills and exploring the fantasticality and absurdity inherent in the play.
As You Like It certainly offers plenty of opportunities for those explorations. This gender-confusing classic concerns Rosalind (Erik Gratton), daughter of the good, banished duke, and her cousin Celia (the aforementioned Plummer), daughter of the bad, usurping duke. Rosalind, in a short space of time, enjoys the bliss of love at first sight with noble Orlando (Dan Amboyer) and endures the pains of banishment by her tempestuous uncle. With good-hearted Celia tagging along, Rosalind goes off in search of her father in the Forest of Arden. The forest, of course, is where the fun begins.
In order to survive in the wilderness, Rosalind disguises herself as a young man. Chaos ensues not only because she courts an unsuspecting Orlando in this costume but because, in this production (as in the Elizabethan original), the girl plays a boy while in reality being played by a boy. Such logic can make the head spin, but Gratton's performance also makes the heart leap. Every time he (she?) and Plummer take the stage, magic happens—a magic not only due to the sheer theatricality of the casting conceit. These two have crafted performances that rely on stereotypical hallmarks of feminine (or femme-y) acting (hand-wringing, giggling) but also are founded upon truth and heart.
It does not hurt that under the dresses are accomplished actors who masterfully navigate prose and blank verse with nuance, clarity, and speed. Such a wonder is so effervescent and contagious that by the end of the play, with not one but four weddings, the sublime silliness wins one over to the joy of the situation.
If the romantic comedy comes across well, the rest of von Stuelpnagel's production could use a little more depth. Rarely does one feel the evil of oppression, the pain of banishment, and the cold of the wild that lie at the dark heart of this play. The exception, of course, is that classic melancholic, Jaques (Greg Hildreth). He ends the play's first half with a solitary moment not found in Shakespeare's original. If only there were more such instances of pain throughout this production.
On the technical side, Wilson Chin and Kanae Heike's set achieves a marvelous coup de théâtre in switching from court to forest: a little change of carpet goes a long way. Additionally, Lauren Phillips's lights and Amy C. Bradshaw's costumes help delineate space and character in simple but effective ways. The songs by Malcolm Gets manage to be emotionally evocative while pulling off Shakespeare's rhyme scheme smoothly.
In the end, if the production sacrifices any of Shakespeare's poignancy, it makes up for it with its crowd-pleasing buoyancy. Four men wear dresses in the show. All will make you laugh, but any production of As You Like It lives or dies by its Rosalind. Fortunately, with a performance that explores all the joys, fears, and foibles of love, Gratton rises to the occasion.