Anita “Jo” Lenhart does not ride lightly into the Wild, Wild West. Not when Shakespeare’s concerned.
But the director of “As You Like It,” opening this weekend at Theatre Memphis, has found the connection and it promises to be a rip-snortin’ yarn of love and exile, bumpkins and bullies, cross-dressers and taletellers.
The story Shakespeare put together begins with banishment. Duke Senior and his people have been kicked out of his own court after his younger brother Frederick has taken over. Off go the exiles to the Forest of Arden where strange and wonderful things happen.
“Shakespeare asks us to look at the way the court — or we could say the town, the city — confines people and isolates them,” Lenhart says. “The characters with good hearts and morals find they all have to flee to the Forest of Arden, the wilderness. And in that natural world, when the rat race of the city is behind them — being as how this is a comedy — what emerges is romance! Out there in the Forest of Arden where fools wander among dukes and milkmaids and shepherds, people start to fall in love.”
The central character of Rosalind — the exiled duke’s daughter who is also dispatched to the woods — tells a particularly poignant and contemporary tale. “Rosalind finds that once she runs away to the forest and disguises herself as a man, people hear her differently,” Lenhart says. “And she relishes this freedom. She’s able to engage on the greatest experiment yet for a woman in her time and that is to be herself with a man, get to know him and let him know her — her wit, her playfulness, her spirit as another human being and not as an object, an objectified woman.”
She can, in short, be herself only when in disguise. “These are the kinds of love games we play all the time,” Lenhart says.
And while the story works perfectly well in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan world, Lenhart wondered where else such a story might unfold. “Where can one brother throw another brother out of town, take away his power seemingly without any threat of the law intervening? Where can a young woman be separated from her father and kept as a toy and then banished? I thought well, that sounds to me like the Dakota Territories of the American frontier in 1887. Those territories outside civilized law but with town structures in place. Either the good sheriff is in town or the bad sheriff is in town.”
If this sounds inspired by the acclaimed HBO series “Deadwood,” then you would not be wrong. Shakespeare’s themes clearly come through and in a setting Americans can relate to. As Al Swearengen, one of the series’ central characters might say well, most everything he says in the show is unusable in a family newspaper.
“We don’t get as gritty as Deadwood — we’re a comedy,” Lenhart notes. “But the play works very well in that particular setting. Another reason I decided to put it there is because very earthy dialects could be used for the people of the pastoral persuasion such as the milkmaid, the shepherds, the farmers.”
Shakespeare wanted various accents to contrast country folk with town dwellers. “I didn’t want to do British dialect,” Lenhart says. “I quite happily found that I could get the same feeling that Shakespeare probably was able to get by using frontier dialects.”
There’s another aspect of this “As You Like It” that often goes missing from most other productions. “If Shakespeare ever wrote a musical, this is the one,” Lenhart says. “Many people cut the songs, but we retained them and composers Davis Fancher, Chris Cotton and myself have all written new settings for the songs using mandolin, guitar and banjo to evoke the feel of old-time American music. And that’s been a gift.”
‘As You Like It’
Through March 2 at Theatre Memphis’ Next Stage, 630 Perkins Ext.
Show times 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $25 adults, $15 students with valid ID, $10 children under 12
Info: 901-682-8323; theatrememphis.org.