La Jolla Playhouse breaking new boundaries with ‘gender-ful’ staging of ‘As You Like It’

Peter Smith, left,  and Esco Jouléy in La Jolla Playhouse’s "As You Like It."
Peter Smith, left, as “Rosalind” and Esco Jouléy as “Orlando” with the cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s “As You Like It.”
(Courtesy of Rich Soublet II)

The production, presented in association with Diversionary Theatre, features a cast of trans, non-binary and queer performers


Twelve years ago at the La Jolla Playhouse, artistic director Christopher Ashley staged a production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where the magical forest world of the fairies featured puppetry, flying effects, music and an upside-down ballroom set.

This month, Ashley returns to Shakespeare with another ambitiously imagined staging. But this time the magical world of the forest he and his co-director, Will Davis, are creating for “As You Like It” is not about special effects and scenery. It’s about the power of human transformation and imagination. The play’s company of 14 actors are all transgender, non-binary and queer, and the forest of Arden is the place where Shakespeare’s characters can explore their gender identities.

Jess Barbagallo, left, and Alanna Darby rehearse a scene for La Jolla Playhouse's "As You Like It."
(Courtesy of Rich Soublet II)

Davis, a transgender director and choreographer, calls this “As You Like It” production “gender-ful,” which he describes as the “antidote of gender neutral.” And of all Shakespeare’s plays, Davis and Ashley say “As You Like It” is the perfect piece to dive into this world of the limitless possibilities.

Written in 1599, Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” is a pastoral comedy about Rosalind, the daughter of the banished Duke Senior, who disguises herself as a boy, Ganymede, and escapes into the forest of Arden to find her father. There she meets the disinherited aristocrat Orlando, who has been posting love notes to Rosalind on the forest trees. In her guise as Ganymede, she helps Orlando devise a plan to win Rosalind’s heart.

Ashley and Davis spoke about their production at a panel discussion held Oct. 24 at Diversionary Theatre, which is an associate producer on the project. At the forum, Ashley said this production has two worlds — the restricted black-and-white, binary world of the duke’s court and the colorful, unbounded freedom of the forest world. In this version of “As You Like It,” Rosalind’s disguise as a boy is more than just the dress-up playfulness seen in most productions of the play.

“What if we let go of the idea that someone is tricking someone else? What if we leaned into this idea that actually what Rosalind is doing is expanding her sense of self,” Davis said. “There’s nothing in the text that is saying ‘are you a man or woman?’ The bulk of it is one person saying to another ‘yes to you in this moment.’ ”

"As You Like It" co-directors Christopher Ashley and Will Davis  at La Jolla Playhouse.
“As You Like It” co-directors Christopher Ashley and Will Davis photographed recently at La Jolla Playhouse.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse)

“It’s so punk rock. All of it feels very gay to me,” Davis said. “Because it’s light on plot, (there’s) no deep structure of the journey and this idea that the heart of this play is about finding someone else and through finding them, finding yourself.”

Ashley first reached out to Davis about two years ago with the offer to co-direct. Davis traditionally works alone with new plays, but he said he’d always had an “itch” to direct Shakespeare and was intrigued by the idea of collaborating on a shared concept with another director.

“There are so many gifts in this process,” Davis said. “It’s not good that I only know my method. We had a year of collaborating pre-rehearsal, meeting with people and figuring this out. I feel so opened up by it.”

Ashley said all of the actors in the production have helped shape their characters and their gender identities. In some cases, the performers have stuck with their characters’ original pronouns of “he” and “she,” while others have chosen “they” and “them” pronouns because they feel it’s a better fit.

The co-directors said their goal with the production has been to create an environment — both for the actors and for the audience — that’s “joy forward.”

“I have a warm place in my heart for this show,” Ashley said. “The last couple of years, culture has become hot button and hostile about queerness, in general. I was very interested in doing a show that nobody was going to be traumatized by or bashed onstage.”

‘As You Like It’

When: Opens Sunday, Nov. 20, and runs through Dec. 11. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.

Where: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

Tickets: $25-$75

Phone: (858) 550-1010