PRINT January 1995


the Boys and the Bard

“WELL, THIS IS THE FOREST of Arden”: the line, from As You Like It, is one of those blunt cues that Shakespeare often fed his characters, an audience pointer explaining the play’s whens and wheres. But it’s also something else: an announcement of entrance to the green world, the exurban universe beyond human order and law, in the comic mode the magical wood of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the tragic the terrible heath of King Lear, the space of the suspension of expectation, the realm of the reversal of role—all in all a pleasant spot, when picnicking there, for a chat about identity politics.

The production of As You Like It included in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s most recent Next Wave program last fall cried out for a crowd of Judith Butler readers. Sexuality is a given of the text: this is a work, after all, in which the heroine, Rosalind, is mostly seen playing the part of a young man—a young man named Ganymede, the pretty boy ravished by Zeus in Greek myth. And Ganymede sometimes pretends to be female, playing the role of Rosalind so that the play’s hero, Orlando, can rehearse the role of the suitor. If every generation finds its own meanings in Shakespeare, today’s audiences have the performativity of gender handed to them on a plate.

At BAM, furthermore, the British theater company Cheek by Jowl upped the ante with an all-male cast. By casting Adrian Lester as Rosalind and Simon Coates as her friend Celia, director Declan Donnellan reinforced As You Like It’s erotic fluidity. And the resonances he evoked may be as old as the play itself: Shakespeare, of course, wrote entirely for male actors. “We still have slept together . . . coupled and inseparable”: Celia’s history of her affection for Rosalind becomes bald double entendre when the performers are men in drag. And when Rosalind returns to her own identity, the other characters’ recognition of same seems appropriately hedged and contingent—she is Rosalind, they say, “ if sight and shape be true”—since the cast obviously remains blind to appearances that we spectators have seen through from the beginning.

As You Like It enjoyed full houses and a return engagement, but meanwhile, in another part of the forest, a second gender-oriented Shakespeare production in New York got less attention: the Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Founded in 1967 by actor; director/writer Charles Ludlam, the Ridiculous made its name on inventively hilarious bad taste. Trashy stage design and costumes, and Ludlam’s delirious scripts (reworkings of classics like Camille, Wagner riffs like Der Ring Gott Farblonjet), made camp humor the company’s foundation. Ludlam died in 1987, of AIDS. Since then the Ridiculous has been led by Everett Quinton, who has maintained its style intact-lacking only Ludlam’s inimitable writing. Perhaps Quinton thinks Shakespeare his next best collaborator: with its bestiality, its husband and wife struggling over “a lovely boy, ” its partner-swapping couples, and, of course, its fairies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is just as polymorphously perverse as As You Like It—more so.

And the Ridiculous is far more polymorphous than Cheek by Jowl. Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod staged As You Like It in a minimal white cube of a set; at first entry, all the actors wore black and white, so that colors coming later in clothes and scant props seemed precise, quasi-painterly additions. The Ridiculous went for the palette of the ’50s prints, faux tigerskins, and beehive wigs that it contorted into costumes. There was a certain purist rigor in Cheek by Jowl’s sex-segregated cast; the Ridiculous cast women as men and men as women as well as the more expected combinations, and made a flourish of its actors’ varying ages and body types, from plump to weedy to Amazonian. Cheek by Jowl spoke their Shakespeare in the as-natural-aspossible mode for which English actors are famous; the Ridiculous made Pyramus into Paramus, a town in New Jersey, and its Puck, Grant Neale, fleshed out his performance with bodybuilding flexes and Elvis imitations. Cheek by Jowl caroled Shakespeare’s songs plangently in four-part harmony, but the Ridiculous’ Titania (Beth Dodye Bass) had to add a placatory wince to the promise that her fairies would sing. The Ridiculous ignored Shakespeare’s poetry but were wickedly funny; Cheek by Jowl got the poetry down, and were funny too, but their humor, and even their sexual politics, fell easily into a classic Brit tradition of more recent vintage than drag (and than Shakespeare): theatrical good taste.

That, probably, is one reason As You Like It filled a large theater and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on the night I saw it, left a small room two-thirds empty. Other explanations might include the longstanding availability of the Ridiculous in New York , and Cheek by Jowl’s status as a classy import in a well-publicized annual festival. There’s another reason too, I think: a sense that the Ridiculous’ theater style—which, 27 years on, I think we can call pure in its own way—is an artifact of another time, before gender became a thesis subject, and before AIDS amended a gay culture that for the first 15 years or so of the Ridiculous’ existence was in an efflorescence of confidence and visibility. There was a faint melancholy to Quinton’s Midsummer Night’s Dream—until, that is, the performance kicked in.

It’s not a complaint about Donnellan’s smart, beautifully realized production to say that its juxtaposition with the Ridiculous show recalls a famous formulation of Manny Farber’s, the faceoff between big handsome white-elephant art and the termite art, the blindly compulsive artmaking, that will eventually bring the house down. Quinton’s and Donnellan’s esthetic had more in common than erotic subtext: a what-you-see-is-what-you-get avoidance of spectacle and sophisticated illusion. But if in Donnellan’s and particularly Ormerod’s case the precedent seemed to be Peter Brook’s celebrated Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1970, in Quinton’s it’s the mad urge to put on a show, to make art with whatever is available, to raid the attic for props and Woolworth’s and sisters’ closets for costumes, to make do. John Waters is in Hollywood, and Tim Burton just made a movie about “worst-film” director Ed Wood; Quinton could easily pillage its effects. The ’90s are a Ridiculous moment. Is the comic and the tragic green world, the polymorphous perverse, ever well behaved?

David Frankel is senior editor of Artforum and a writer who lives in New York.