Rosalind and Celia are talking about something stage left, but we're more fascinated by what's happening stage right, as a group of men kick around a soccer ball and speak in a variety of tongues, like a latter-day Tower of Babel. These are the denizens of Arden in director Jessica Bauman's Arden/Everywhere, a radical take on William Shakespeare's As You Like It that recasts his sanctuary forest as an encampment for the world's refugees.
The 1599 comedy is experiencing something of a moment in New York, with three major productions happening this fall (this one is playing at Baruch Performing Arts Center). It tells the story of Rosalind (a charming Helen Cespedes), who follows her father the Duke (Dikran Tulaine) into exile after he is usurped by his cruel brother (also Tulaine). The lovesick Orlando (Anthony Cason Jr.) chases her to Arden, never suspecting that she has disguised herself as the boy page Ganymede. Comic high jinks ensue in a convoluted plot that includes a boastful court wrestler (Kenneth De Abrew), a clever fool (Dennis Kozee), and a depressive who posits that all the world's a stage (Tommy Schrider).
At least, it's supposed to be a comedy. Arden/Everywhere suffers from the same problem as the current Classic Stage Company production of As You Like It: It's just not that funny. This is despite strong comic performances from Kozee (who plays Touchstone as if he were Greg Kinnear in the '90s) and De Abrew as the shepherd Corin, who here becomes an unscrupulous entrepreneur catering to the desperate camp dwellers: The sign above his shop at various times advertises SIM cards and "Harvard" diplomas. Beyond those sight gags, laughs are few and far between.
We really don't mind, though, because Bauman's strong perspective keeps us hooked. Featuring a cast of actors originally hailing from places as diverse as Ecuador, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan, Arden/Everywhere intermittently has them step out of Shakespeare's play and tell their own stories: "My father worked in a bank, but there was no money so they paid him in potatoes," Anton Kurdakov shares about his childhood in the twilight of the Soviet Union. As the principals flirt through mistaken identity, the ensemble lines up to fill plastic jugs with water from a spigot, bringing life-and-death stakes to what was previously a light rom-com. Who knew that As You Like It touched on the universal language of soccer, the economic exploitation of refugees, and the role of class in determining how long one will spend in the purgatory between seeking refuge and getting it? Yet that's what you'll walk away from Arden/Everywhere thinking about, making a strong case for the relevance of the play.
The design does that too: Gabriel Evansohn's set of broken cinderblocks, corrugated iron, and wood pallets conjures images of Eastern Turkey and Calais. Occasionally, a man in a UNHCR jacket wanders in and posts something on a bulletin board, prompting disappointed faces. Nicole Slaven outfits the cast in modern, heat-retaining fabrics, raising the stakes by suggesting that winter is coming. Movement director Brandon Powers choreographs the ensemble in maneuvers that are heartbreaking, joyful, and menacing. Carman Lacivita's blunt fight direction reinforces that last point, especially during a brutal gang beating.
Detractors will argue that this isn't actually Shakespeare's story, but the impetuous work of an auteur. Bauman admits her misgivings about As You Like It in the first paragraph of her program note: "Paper thin plot; not funny enough." Still, Shakespeare's text (which Bauman mostly retains) makes it clear that the Duke and his family aren't the only people seeking refuge in the Forest of Arden. Bauman pulls the camera back to show the lives of those other people — and it turns out, they're a lot more interesting than those of the central players.