Impact Theatre specializes in new plays, usually fast-paced comedies aimed at a twentysomething audience, as befits a theater in a pizza-parlor basement half a block from UC Berkeley. But once a season artistic director Melissa Hillman helms a high-octane production of a Shakespeare play, always in a modern setting and with more sex and violence than usual. This time it's As You Like It, William Shakespeare's popular comedy of cross-dressing, wrasslin', and everyone getting horny in the woods.
No sooner have they fallen in love at first sight than young lovers Rosalind and Orlando are parted, each exiled by the evil duchess (usually a duke) because their parents are her political enemies. Accompanied by her cousin and best friend Celia, the duchess's child, Rosalind dresses as a man to protect herself on the road and holes up in the forest of Arden. There she happens upon her new love Orlando pinning clumsy love poems about her to the trees, and she volunteers to coach him in how to treat a woman.
So there's Rosalind in her male guise of Ganymede, telling Orlando to pretend she's Rosalind. (And, of course, in Shakespeare's day it would be a man playing the woman pretending to be a man, who in turn is play-acting as the woman she secretly is.) Complicating matters are a number of other romances, including a shepherd who loves a cruel young woman who can't stand him but has the hots for Ganymede.
In Hillman's take, the forest of Arden becomes a small town in Northern California. She piles on the gender-bending as well: Celia is played by Alexander Lenarsky as a hilariously exuberant young gay man. Marianna Wolff listlessly portrays double duchesses instead of dukes: Celia's ice-queen mother and the kindly ruler (and sister) she overthrew, dwelling happily in Arden. Sarah Coykendall gives a compelling turn as the melancholy Jaques, turning the idle cynic into a jaded hipster. This choice makes the gloomy philosopher's sudden enthusiasm for the presence of a jester (a boisterously bawdy B. Warden Lawlor) make more sense than usual, because it's the ironist's love of kitsch.