LAWRENCE – “As You Like It” is one of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedies, set in the mythical forest of Arden. But when Mechele Leon, University of Kansas professor of theatre, conceived this year’s production, she was inspired by a much darker story: the Bielski brothers’ band of Jewish partisans, who hid out for years in the woods of Eastern Europe to escape and resist the Holocaust.
For the past couple of years, Leon, who traces her family history to the Spanish Inquisition, has been exploring her Jewish roots in places like Berlin and Malaga, Spain. And that, she said, brought up associations among the Bard, fascist Europe of the 1930s and today.
“I've set it in 1930s Europe, very deliberately in a rise-of-fascism moment, which, for comedy, sounds a bit shocking,” Leon said. “But when you think about the play, it fits.”
While Leon acted in Shakespeare repertory early in her career, this is the first of his plays she has directed.
“Shakespeare — and especially the comedies – are open to all kinds of reinterpretations,” she said. “The most recent ‘As You Like It’ on HBO by Kenneth Branagh was set in 19th century imperial Japan and starts with a war scene. So it's not unusual to situate my production in 1930s Europe.
“The story of ‘As You Like It’ is framed by a rupture that comes from a character that can be described as a tyrant. He has usurped his brother, the rightful Duke, has taken over his brother’s wealth and land. He cruelly banishes his niece. He likes blood sports. That's the framework for the story and why these exiles have escaped to the woods — having run away from this tyrant.”
Leon said she had scant interest in doing an Elizabethan-period production of the play when the 2019-20 season was being discussed among faculty. But she thought she could more subtly make some of the same points that got Public Theatre artistic director Oskar Eustis into hot water immediately after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, when he clad his “Julius Caesar” in an orange wig.
“I was thinking about ‘As You Like It,’ and I was in Berlin at the end of April,” Leon said. “I was visiting the museum that's part of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and I was looking at some photos of Jews and others who survived by escaping to the forest during the war. One of the most famous of these was a camp that had at its maximum 1,200 people, and they hid out against the Nazis for four years. And in the camp, as far as they could, they had school and synagogue and they got married and they had children and they manufactured things and they did theater.
“I am not crafting Shakespeare’s forest story as a group of Jews in the forest – let me be very clear about that. But what I am saying is that it lends some credibility to my concept. Because I thought, well, in that fascist world, here we have an example of people who escaped — people who were forced to flee — and yet thrived.
“So in my version of that, or the way I think of ‘As You Like It,’ if I'm going to set it in the 1930s, then it allows us to ask the same question: How do people survive and thrive under tyranny? I don't want to press too hard on the Holocaust, because that's not what I'm doing here. It's not that explicit.”
Leon said the production, which opens Feb. 21, will evoke Europe’s 20th-century fascist period with costume, set design and music. There have been no additions to the script, just a few cuts to save time and changes that permit more female-identified students to be cast.
“We open the play with a kind of Nuremberg Rally,” Leon said. “We designed our own fascist logo. I took some inspiration from the way the TV version of ‘The Handmaid's Tale’ created a world. It’s quite a mashup of European fascism, so we took on tones of Hitler and tones of Mussolini and tones of Stalin.”
“I am hoping to let people draw their own conclusions about why they think the 1930s matters today. I'm not dictating to anybody what I think they should take from it. Maybe it'll land, maybe it won't.”
Leon noted that, during her time at KU, the University Theatre company play selections have become more and more contemporary.
“This year,” she said, “everything we're doing is contemporary, except for ‘As You Like It.’ So if I’m going to continue to do a classic ... I have to ask why, because I think we're so urgently looking for stories that tell us about the present moment.”
Photo: Mechele Leon, University of Kansas professor of theatre, on the set of "As You Like It." Credit: Rick Hellman / KU News Service