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How do I love thee? No, seriously

Experts illuminate courtship in BPA’s production of the Bard’s ‘As You Like It’

What’s less comfortable: a sixteenth-century corset or a blind date from hell?

In Megan Smithling’s mind, the comparison may or may not be relevant.

“People didn’t date in Shakespeare’s day, at least not in the way we think of it,” she said. “The idea of casual dating didn’t exist.”

Smithling and others will nonetheless tackle mating rituals through the ages this Sunday in the second of four “Beyond the Script” discussions, this one to advance and illuminate Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” opening at Bainbridge Performing Arts Friday.

Program coordinator Kathleen Thorne says the series, new to BPA this year, was designed to help turn mainstage productions into “stepping stones” to the contemporary issues they each raise. And as guest dramaturg, Smithling was brought on board to illuminate the plays, constructing a ladder of relevance that audiences can grab hold of to connect to the material in new ways.

This fall brought a criminal justice specialist to delve into the mind of a murderer prior to “Jekyll and Hyde.” And just as a modern expert created a novel context for viewing a slasher musical set in tightly coiled Victorian London, Thorne and Smithling hope that Sunday’s “Merry Mysteries of Love” will give audiences new food for thought as they enter the Forest of Arden.

Especially as they’ll be joined by representatives from the dating service It’s Just Lunch! Seattle/Bellevue – modern matchmakers who cater to busy singles.

“As You Like It” comedically chronicles the matchings and mis-matchings that ensue when Rosalind and Celia, best friends and cousins, disguise themselves and escape the court of Duchy overtaker and Celia’s father, Frederick.

In the suspended disbelief of Arden – to which Rosalind’s father, the usurped Duke, has already decamped – Rosalind and Celia encounter the young gentleman Orlando, who similarly has fled his home. Through mistaken identity, likely and unlikely pairings and gender hijinks, love wins the day.

If contemporary daters face the two-fold dilemma of so many people to choose from that there may as well be none, Smithling describes in Shakespeare’s time a more straightforward set of courting rituals strictly aligned with economics and class.

The natural real-life order for, say, a Rosalind and an Orlando would have been the cut-and-dried creation of a limited partnership. They’d have been betrothed at a young age, married later and expected to produce progeny, with love a non-essential deal toy that may or may not have been thrown in at the end like a logo-embossed pen.

Yet as Smithling freely admits, humans are human, and “we still act in the same silly ways in love...and go a little crazy.”

Especially in the woods. And in “As You Like It,” Shakespeare provides a convenient escape to Arden, where wild things can happen to anyone.

“They don’t have to follow the rules that normally society would demand of them,” Smithling said. “They can kind of kick back. It’s the same reason people in the 60s went to Woodstock.”

Savvy Shakespeare, while writing for the rule-bound court, possessed the clear view of a social critic and understood that while certain mores must always apply, his audience was also at heart a “rowdy, bawdy bunch of people.”

“I think one of the things people misunderstand about the Elizabethan era is that they think it was pretty tight-laced,” Smithling said. “And it wasn’t.”

Thus, old Will’s audiences would not just tolerate but embrace the humor of the play’s sexual politics – a woman loving a woman dressed as a man, to name just one of the identity benders.

“He gives them a chance to have that outlet,” Smithling said.

As would any modern single, Elizabethan audiences also appreciated a happy ending, which “As You Like It” offers as tidily packaged as they come. Orlando and Rosalind, Oliver and Celia, Silvius and Phebe and Touchstone and Audrey are all married by the last scene, a pat solution that might seem to fly in the face of Shakespeare’s iconoclasm.

But Smithling points out that even Shakespeare wasn’t about to mess with the natural order of things, and we all must eventually emerge from the woods.

What, then, was Shakespeare really trying to tell audiences through the ages about love? In mulling that one, Smithling comes back to the “brilliant, brilliant” character of Rosalind.

“What she tells us and all the characters she interacts with in the play is that love needs to be genuine and heartfelt and free...and it should be open,” Smithling said. “And it doesn’t necessarily matter who you fall in love with as long as you are in love, and that you experience that in your life. And some people are meant to be together.”

Which brings lovelorn singles back to their higher calling: to raise their noses from their annotated Shakespeare collections and try to engage some nice new person over a cup of coffee, a quick drink after work, or heaven help them, dinner and a movie.

“I’m kind of interested personally to hear the ‘It’s Just Lunch’ ladies talk about how it works in the real world,” Smithling said. “That dating world is just as crazy as what goes on in Arden.”

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