There's a California spin to the jaunty "As You Like It," which tweaks identity.
Leith Burke stars as Orlando, left, Christopher Liam Moore as Rosalind and Page Leong as Celia in the envelope-pushing As You Like It: A California Concoction. (Lawrence K. Ho / LAT)
The production, adapted from Shakespeare by Alison Carey and directed by Cornerstone's departing artistic director, Bill Rauch, has teasing fun with the most exquisite romantic comedy in the English language. And though the update is not reverential to the play's poetry, it pays homage to the original's spirit by recognizing that adult affection, flawed as it can be, is a blessed form of madness that should be communally respected, if not celebrated, wherever and whomever it mutually strikes.
Set now in a fable-like Pasadena in which the evil Mayor Frederick has usurped his good brother's office via a rigged election (Gerald Hiken doubles as both characters), the story moves to the Southern California equivalent of the Forest of Arden — the Mojave Desert, a place outside the bounds of power-hungry rulers and the tasteless municipal bureaucracies that keep their chicanery under wraps.
Carey hews to Shakespeare's basic outline but avails herself of every opportunity to contemporize the dialogue and make pointed topical references. Straightaway there's a Dick Cheney joke as well as the announcement that the mayor has installed a NASCAR-style track in the Rose Bowl.
The dialogue blends (not always smoothly) contemporary and Elizabethan diction, so that Jaques' "Seven Ages of Man" speech becomes the less memorable "All the world's a show / And all the men and women merely guest stars." Obviously few writers can match Shakespeare, and Carey frequently loses track of her own newfangled metaphors.
A more radical approach would have attempted to make the magnificent language speak directly to our own linguistically challenged moment, but that's a separate fight, and the buoyancy of this California-ized version earns its fair share of smiles.
The nontraditional casting mirrors the adaptation's free-and-easy approach. Shakespeare may have written a play for an all-male cast in which a boy plays a woman playing a man, but for Rauch that's just a starting point in a production that sees race and gender as incentives to slip into something a little less familiar.
Naturally, Rosalind, the daughter of the banished old mayor, is the axis on which this amorous whirligig spins. She is played here by Christopher Liam Moore, who, though somewhat dowdy in a dress, makes an appealingly effete Loverboy. The name, for those not remembering its mention in Shakespeare, modernizes the Ganymede alias Rosalind assumes when, disguised as a boy, she flees the cruel court with her cousin Celia (Page Leong), the tart, independent-minded daughter of the bad mayor who can't be without her.
Rosalind's love interest, Orlando (a likable Leith Burke), still finds himself unfairly cheated of a proper upbringing by his greedy older sibling. But brother Oliver is now sister Olivia (Lisa Tharps), a no-nonsense businesswoman who's all about her own advancement. Also re-gendered is Orlando's faithful aged servant Adam, who has become Eve (Dorothy James), an old lady from Pasadena in a lime-green jogging suit who's as stalwart and spry as ever.
Touchstone (Jonathan Del Arco), the court clown who accompanies Rosalind and Celia into the desert, remains male, though his shtick now bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Sean Hayes' character on "Will & Grace." More daringly, the object of Touchstone's lust is no longer the country wench Audrey but a bearish mechanic named Aubrey (Benajah Cobb), with whom he wants to register with the state of California for "civil unification and thereby receive about a third as many rights as actually married people."
Because Moore's Rosalind is so deliriously over-the-moon about Orlando, it's not always clear why she doesn't immediately reveal herself to him in the Mojave. In the original, of course, she wants to ensure that his love is made of stronger stuff than impetuous infatuation. Her intellect is as big as her heart, and she's determined to cultivate within him a more mature attachment, even as she discovers the depth of her own.
Moore's approach, in keeping with the general run of things, is sillier and more sentimental. What prevents invidious comparisons like these from spoiling matters is the trueness of his Rosalind's ardor. The character's grateful astonishment at finding someone who returns her tenderness in the face of governmental condemnation takes on a new, gay poignancy. And if the portrayal doesn't synchronize with Shakespeare's vision in all respects, at least it isn't alien to its larger implications.
The same could be said for this earnestly envelope-pushing production, which advances its utopian agenda in a jaunty, eager-to-please way. But it probably helps if you're already on the same cultural and political page as the creators.
Which isn't to say that the stagecraft isn't lively or that the artistry is without charm. Rauch and his team keep things bouncing along colorfully if a tad simplistically. And the game cast, though as mixed in skill level as it is in every other category, demonstrates an infectious energy throughout. Kate Mulligan, in a slew of roles both singing and not, is particularly winning.
For pure, unadulterated Shakespeare, you may want to go elsewhere. But if it's the equal-opportunity emotion known as love you're looking for, you'd be hard pressed to find theater folk with a greater appreciation of the many different ways we like it.
"As You Like It: A California Concoction"
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: April 16
Price: $38 to $60
Contact: (626) 356-PLAY
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes