The Shakespeare reinvention game is at full throttle in Washington now: “King John” is making a rare appearance at the Folger Theatre. “Henry V” was recently performed by the commedia dell’arte outfit Faction of Fools. “Twelfth Night” is sailing under the flag “Illyria” at Avant Bard, and it’s set in a queer 1980s Manhattan nightclub, disco tunes and all. The all-female “In This Hope: A Pericles Project” is premiering with the playwrights’ group the Welders.
So why not now for Washington to get its first taste of New York singer-songwriter Shaina Taub’s popular new adaptations of Shakespeare? The Keegan Theatre is rocking out with the musical “As You Like It,” which Taub created along with a similar “Twelfth Night” for the Public Theatre’s Public Works project. The shows incorporated a blend of 200 community members and professional actors; “As You Like It,” adapted with Laurie Woolery and with songs by Taub, is now licensed for production around the country.
At Keegan, it’s embodied by 18 actors swarming the intimate Dupont Circle stage, which has been reconfigured by directors Cara Gabriel and Josh Sticklin for an in-the-round experience. It’s the old free-spirited hippie playbook — you remember how the “Hair” team turned around and tackled “Two Gentlemen of Verona” for the Public back in the day, right? — with actors playing instruments and singing wit-driven pop tunes mashing up Shakespearean language and the latest slang.
Taub writes neat hooks, so when the philosophical clown Jacques opens with a melancholy phrase, the notes stick and a blue mood is set. “All the world’s a stage,” Caroline Dubberly croons as Jacques, sometimes sitting at a keyboard and playing. “Everybody’s in the show. Nobody’s a pro.” That understated yet pointed view of life certainly captures the spirit of “As You Like It,” the bittersweet comedy in which everyone flees a corrupt court and scampers to the healing forest of Arden.
The perky-reflective songs are played by a small combo of piano, keyboards, guitar, bass, cello and percussion, so the music can be driving or mellow, depending on the state of romantic confusion. The matchups in this gender-bending comedy, with Rosalind disguising herself as a man and schooling her secret beloved, Orlando, in the ways of wooing, are same-sex as often as not.
The enterprise is frisky and pointedly inclusive in terms of re-conceived characters and casting, but it’s not always exacting in this performance. The actors who really own their roles are Dubberly and Jade Jones, who sings magnificently and exudes peace as the exiled Duke Senior, calmly keeping court in Arden. Playful and bighearted as it is, the show doesn’t totally glow until the last moments.
A deliberate outcome of most Shakespeare reinventions is casting women in all kinds of roles. (See Glenda Jackson, heading for Broadway next spring as Lear.) Director Robert McNamara applies that to Oscar Wilde in his all-female “A Woman of No Importance,” which also blooms late but lands with such a satisfying snap that the opening-night audience actually breathed, “Aha!”
The Scena Theatre production in the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s tiny Lab II is a pocket staging of the Wilde play, a script that crackles with epigrams and simmers with melodrama. In brief: The rakish Lord Illingworth takes a shine to a young man who just happens to be a son he fathered out of wedlock, and whom he never knew. The shunned mother, Mrs. Arbuthnot, wants to protect her son from Illingworth’s devilish influence. Who will win?
Having both extremely brittle 19th-century gender roles played by women casts the hypocrisy in high relief. Nanna Ingvarsson, in a man’s suit and with a mustache penciled above her upper lip, endows Illingworth with maximum swagger and speaks the lines lustily. Sara Barker, meanwhile, wrings her hands and nervously casts her eyes down as Mrs. Arbuthnot while sharply flinging Illingorth’s immoral quips back in Ingvarsson’s face.
McNamara sets the action in old Hollywood, and there’s a small screen with silent film-style titles at the back of the stage. The early scenes with a gossipy circle of women is distractingly arch and mannered, but it’s unexpectedly fruitful to have the female view so dominant as Barker’s Arbuthnot rebukes Illingworth for how cavalierly he treated her 20 years ago. In the end, the revenge fantasy plot about justice delayed and long denied sounds like it was concocted only this fall.
As You Like It, adapted by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery. Music and lyrics by Shaina Taub. Music director, Tiffany Underwood Holmes; choreography, Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi; set, Matthew J. Keenan; lights, Alberto Segarra; costumes, Jeanette Christensen; sound design, Niusha Nawab. About 100 minutes. Through Dec. 2 at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. $62. 202-265-3767 or keegantheatre.com.
A Woman of No Importance, by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Robert McNamara. Set, Michael C. Stepowany; costumes, Alisa Mandel; projections, Jesse Marciniak; sound design, Denise Rose. About 90 minutes. Through Dec. 2 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NW. $35-$45. scenatheatre.org