… without enchantment …
As You Like It is a wonderful play so that, even with this disappointing production, it’s not a wasted evening. The language is so powerful and some of the scenes so funny that they surpass the flat interpretations they receive here, and in particular two actors — André de Shields and Leenya Rideout – are satisfyingly perfect!
But all in all, this is an As You Like It without enchantment.
The play rests on a contrast between life at court with its envies, intrigues, and self-protection and, as Shakespeare envisioned it, life in the magical Forest of Arden, free and close to nature. In these ways it’s like Midsummer Night’s Dream.
We spend just enough time at court to learn that the younger son, Frederick has usurped the right of his older brother, Duke Senior, to the duchy and sent him into exile. While Frederick tolerated having Duke Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, around for a while, the play begins as he sends her into exile, too, shortly after she and Orlando briefly meet and fall in love at first sight. The Forest of Arden (think Eden) quickly fills up as Rosalind flees there along with her beloved cousin Celia who is Frederick’s child, and with them Touchstone the court fool. And — as Shakespeare’s wonderful chance would have it – Orlando, sent away by his mean, jealous older brother, heads there too.
It should be easy for Rosalind and Orlando to discover one another in Arden and enjoy their love, right? Wrong. Because Rosalind disguises herself as a young man, and takes on the name “Ganymede,” so that when Orlando, love-sick over that very Rosalind, meets up with her, he believes she is the young man she appears to be. And she doesn’t disabuse him. She’s also in love but — coy? testing? seeking experience? ambivalent? — sticks to her disguise as Ganymede. She doesn’t let him off the hook, though. Instead, Rosalind says she will allow Orlando to woo “Ganymede” as if she were Rosalind, and the young man agrees to play the game — to act at wooing the person he believes is a young man. With this game, Rosalind/Ganymede claims she can cure Orlando of being in love, while she gets to be wooed by the man she loves.
At any rate, the situation in which Rosalind/Ganymede and Orlando play the courtship game with a her as a him and he doesn’t know it opens up the play to hilarity, suspense, and gorgeous love poetry.
Their impassioned if eccentric romance is only one of the wonders in Arden, Shakespeare’s characters being among the greatest wonders of all. As so often, the fool has some of deepest insight. Touchstone, played by the actor, dancer, and man of theater André de Shields, lets us sense the truths that lie behind his sprightly mask, dancing away with a jester’s wariness when his hits come too close to home. He speaks his lines with strength and clarity and lets us hear all the poetry. He fairly dances his way through the part and is fascinating to watch as his movements express his character and emotions. His costume is a witty combination of argyle and knickers in keeping with the more or less modern (1950’s ?) costuming of the play by Ann Hould Ward. De Shields is the most powerful presence on stage.
Among the denizens of Arden is another of Shakespeare’s great characters, Jacques, the melancholy courtier. The award winning actress Ellen Burstyn plays the role, and while it’s impressive to see her move herself to tears by the end of the tragic monolog on the ages of man (“All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players…” ), her thin voice , here and elsewhere, is at odds with the depth of the character and resonance of the language.
A special feature of this production is that the very well-known composer and writer for musical theater, Stephen Schwartz has written music for it. The nearest to enchantment in this production’s mundane Forest of Arden is when Phoebe, the shepherdess, circles the stage with her solo violin, playing insinuatingly lovely Schwartz music, all the more because Phoebe is played by the enchanting actress Leenya Rideout.
The easy listening jazz grooves well with the theme of freedom in the forest, and when the ensemble comes together to sing it radiates a sense of joy. It’s pleasant to listen to Bob Stillman, who plays Duke Frederick and Duke Sr., performing cocktail bar music at the spinet on stage. The idea of setting Shakespeare’s songs and song-like passages to music is a wished for and welcome idea. At most times, though, when there is singing, solo or ensemble, the words can’t be heard well or fully understood, and when it comes to Shakespeare, you don’t have to be a “purist” to want to hear all of the words.
Beyond those I’ve mentioned, others of the performers are able and others need more experience. As for “chemistry” between these famous lovers, Rosalind and Orlando, you won’t find it here.
The set design is somewhat experimental. The backdrop looks like a wall of red bricks, as if we’re in a theater without a set – not a forest for sure, but perhaps an interesting element for teasing the relationship between illusion and reality which is a theme of the play. The main design features, however, are many globular lights above the stage that, at certain points, change color, but the overall effect is not enchanting but, unfortunately, barren.
As You Like It plays at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island, through September 3, 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.