The play has it: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” Taking that famous line as a queue, the multicultural cast of Arden / Everywhere, an embellishment of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, has done something unusual. They have given their own unique voices—those of immigrant experiences of all kinds—and brought real heart to one of William Shakespeare’s sillier stories. In this version of the play, the forest of Arden is a refugee camp where people of meager means find love and friendship in exile. They cannot make the suffering stop, but they can lessen its bite.
Kambi Gathesha, Indika Senanayake
Shakespeare himself likely never set foot out of England, much less travel to Italy, Greece, or any of the many distant locales where he set his plays. From his writing, however, we get a sense that he was curious about people in far-off lands. The Baruch Performing Arts Center has brought some of those far-off lands to us, building a cast full of immigrants who, like Shakespeare’s characters, have traveled far and at great risk in the hope of finding a better future.
With interludes for music from their countries and accounts of how they came to the United States, the background ensemble steals the spotlight and brings heart to one of Shakespeare’s sillier stories. The story is standard Shakespeare: powerful brothers in opposition, banished royalty, a woman disguised as a man, mistaken identity, misplaced love. The primary would-be lovers, Helen Cespedes as Rosalind and Anthony Cason as Orlando, take a hard-to-believe premise and turn in fun and unexpectedly sweet performances. The fools, both Dennis Kozee as Touchstone and Tommy Schrider as the melancholy Jacques, easily earn their places, bringing extra life to every scene they touch. Kozee’s charisma alone makes up for a significant shortage of sense and chivalry in his later scenes.
Helen Cespedes, Liba Vaynberg, Kambi Gathesha
While the play itself offers chuckles aplenty, no piece of the Bard’s story could provide the punch that the actors—several of them Baruch students—deliver when discussing their own journeys into unknown lands. As director Jessica Bauman writes, the thing that inspired her most was connecting with teenage refugees and asylum seekers. She asks, “Who among us wants to be thought of only by the worst thing that we have ever experienced? Refugees are people who cope with the hardships of displacement while also playing soccer, trying to study, making music, and falling in love.”
Bauman actually developed much of this show with teens in the IRC Refugee Youth Summer Academy and at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. In doing so she found a way to make the “paper-thin plot,” as she calls it, fuller and more alive.
These performances are made to nurture empathy and connect people from very different backgrounds. To expand on that experience, Baruch has placed something called the Baruch Portal outside the theater. For one hour before each performance and between the hours of noon and 3 p.m. on October 26–28, you can enter the gold cube in the PAC lobby and speak in real time with people in Erbil, Iraq; Mexico City; and San Pedro Sula in Honduras—places with large refugee communities whose personal tales are as harrowing as anything you’ll see onstage. And when their voices join together, it’s like a wonderful shot straight to the heart.
Photos by Russell Rowland
Top photo: Anthony Cason Jr., Denisse Jimenez, Liba Vaynberg, Helen Cespedes
Arden / Everywhere: The “As You Like It” Project
At The Rose Nagelberg Theater, The Baruch Performing Arts Center
Playing through October 28, 2017