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Ashland Mainstage: Lump It or Like It

“The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa,” and “As You Like It,” by William Shakespeare (with assistance) at The Elizabethan Theatre, Ashland, Oregon.

This season, aside from the brooding historical pageant of “Henry V,” the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) has given over its outdoor flagship stage, the Elizabethan Theatre, to a pair of comedies. Both have been “adapted” almost beyond recognition as anything Shakespeare ever wrote. Falstaff has been turned into an American election year political cartoon, while the Forest of Arden takes on the gouache hues and twee clutter of a Victorian greeting card. Some of these tweaks work better than others, but the overall effect is affable, entertaining and summery.

Swiving the Swing Vote

Ashland recidivists may remember actor David Kelley as Falstaff in the 2010 production of “Henry IV, Part I.” Well, he’s at it again. But this time, Sir John has morphed into Senator Falstaff, failed Iowa caucus contestant and wannabe Comeback Kid.

It’s not such a stretch, when you think of it. Shakespeare’s debauched knight actually has a lot in common with the vote-grubbing four flushers that blight our nightly news: hypocrisy, misogyny, sociopathic self-absorption, fake bonhomie. Even the costume adjustment might not be so daunting. Just re-upholster Kelley to shift some padding from Falstaff’s quivering midriff to his statesmanly stuffed shirt.

Perhaps seduced by these facile transpositions, adapter Alison Carey and director Christopher Liam Moore go on to conflate even more aspects of Elizabethiana with features of the modern political landscape. For the 17th century London suburb of Windsor, they substitute a cow town in Iowa.

That swing state was one of the pioneers in same-sex marriage legalization (thanks to a 2009 court ruling), so Carey and Moore seem to have interpreted the “Merry” of the title to mean “Gay.” As befits a Shakespearean comedy, the play has to end in marriages — fully seven of them, either newly plighted or reaffirmed. Yet by the final curtain call, we somehow wind up with 11 wives, versus just three husbands.

Despite the town’s distinctly Sapphic bent, Falstaff persuades himself he can seduce a pair of wealthy matrons — one gay, one straight — away from their respective spouses to fund his next campaign. The scandalized women, in sisterly solidarity, collude to plot their vengeance. They lure the Senator into their boudoirs, only to scare him into ignominious exits — once in a recycling bin, the second time in drag.

All this gender-bending adds an extra layer of muddle to an already convoluted plot. So does the profusion of yokel stereotypes (bimbonic pom-pom girls, chainsaw-wielding diesel dykes, cut-throat animal husbandry competition et al) that make this Windsor seem more like Dogpatch than Iowa. Just as jarringly, the diction swings from aw-shucks Americana to verbatim gobs of Shakespeare’s original script. So just as you’re getting attuned to one idiom you find yourself plunged back into the other.

Not that any of this really matters. Why should this farce make any more sense than, say, “Animal Crackers?” Still, the gags and allusions do seem a bit forced at times. But for sheer frenetic chicanery, Kelley’s hard to beat. Sit back and enjoy his vivisection of our endemic pest, hariolus politicam americanus.

Egg-Suckers and Tree-Huggers

Remember when an out-of-power political faction was referred to as “in the wilderness?” Sounds kind of quaint in this era of treasonously sore losers who’d just as soon torch the town as step aside. But, in the world of “As You Like It,” when you’re on the outs politically, the done thing is to beat a graceful retreat to a literal wilderness. Ousted by his younger brother, Duke Senior and his retinue betake themselves to the Forest of Arden.

It’s a kind of magic, healing zone where the Outniks can live a bucolic idyl, fraternizing with each other and the local peasantry. They’re soon joined by more outcasts. The daughters of the exiled duke and his usurper, who grew up together as virtual sisters, flee the oppressive court incognito. So does the downtrodden younger son of a loyal ducal retainer who happens to be in love with the duke’s daughter.

The exiles philosophize and versify and pair off in the boscage. Their clean-living, tree-hugging, non-violent virtue eventually shames their usurpers into abdication. In the end, the Outniks are brought back in to the court and restored to their rightful status.

In this year’s OSF production, director Jessica Thebus and her designers treat this magical forest as a character in its own right. Their Arden is strung with glow-worm lanterns and dominated for some reason by a gigantic clockwork. Presiding over the forest is a quartet of female demiurges, the four “Graces,” one for each season. Robed in white, with elaborate head-gear, these mysterious presences thread silently through the onstage action, tossing off voiceless benedictions here and there. All this is meant to evoke Victorian fairy-tale illustrations, according to the program notes.

The play hinges on Rosalind (here played by Ashland newcomer Erica Sullivan), daughter of the exiled duke. She tricks herself our as a forest yeoman to make good her flight to Arden. In this guise, she tutors her unsuspecting swain (Kenajuan Bentley) how best to woo her, much to the bemusement of her sister/cousin (Christine Albright) and their faithful jester (Peter Frechette).

Sullivan conveys just the right mix of courage, intelligence and vulnerability for the role. Under her tutelage, Bentley visibly morphs from a sullen teenager to a committed lover. And Albright’s spunk lights up the stage.

But my favorite character in “As You Like It” is the determinedly downbeat courtier Jacques, who “can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs.” In this year’s production, the role is made female, as portrayed by Kathryn Meisle, another Ashland neophyte. She crops up in every subplot with world-weary commentary, including the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech, which she delivers pitch-perfect (accompanying herself with a simultaneous translation into American Sign Language).

And, in the end, she’s the only one of the duke’s retinue that declines to return to court. She’ll remain “in the wilderness,” an Outnik by choice.

Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.