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The Habit of Art

As You Like It

Maria Aitken's innovative if undisciplined version of Shakespeare's classic comedy makes all the world a film set.

By Washington, DC
Francesca Faridany and John Behlmann
in As You Like It
(© Scott Suchman)
Francesca Faridany and John Behlmann
in As You Like It
(© Scott Suchman)
"All the world's a stage" says gloomy Jacques in William Shakespeare's As You Like It. Not so in director Maria Aitken's innovative if undisciplined version of the Bard's classic comedy, now onstage at Washington D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company. That's because the celebrated British director -- best known for her work on The 39 Steps -- has chosen to tell this tale of exiles searching for freedom in the Forest of Arden through a cinematic prism.

Indeed, Aitken's production sees the world as a film set, with the characters traveling through 400 years of mostly American history and telling their story as it might be seen in the styles of classic American movies. Scene segues are punctuated by the movement of constantly evolving filmmaking equipment and studio personnel. At times, this works very well, such as when the manipulation of genres puts plucky Rosalind's pursuit of autonomy and love in sharp relief. (As Rosalind, Francesca Faridany gives the character a hearty dash of Jean Arthur pluckiness, which perfectly suits the cinematic milieu.) Just as often, however, the production feels as if Shakespeare were being done for laughs on The Carol Burnett Show.

Adding to the cinematic ambiance is the original score by Broadway composer Michael John LaChiusa, which features musical segues, interludes, and underscores, as well as several song-and-dance numbers. While all of it is fitting, none of it is really memorable.

The play gets off to a slow start, as the cast plays it straight on Derek McLane's first set -- a black and featureless Arden -- enrobed in costume designer Martin Pakledinaz's black and white versions of Shakespearean-era fashions. This design scheme, which is utilized for substantially longer than the segments which follow, sets a sluggish tone for the production and the performance follows suit.

Indeed, it's only as the action shifts from Arden to America and time periods begin to fly by that the cast becomes energized and puts some wind in Will's sails. Highlights include stops at the Revolutionary War, the antebellum South, the Civil War, a gambling paddleboat on the Mississippi River in the 1880s, the Old West's Monument Valley of 1885, and a swank nightclub in the 1930s. Projections help create settings and ambiance, along with notation for dates and locations. A small-screen rear projection behind an automobile makes a 1920s American road trip a visually amusing enterprise.

As the time periods become more colorful and the film genres become more recognizable, the comedy becomes more physical. Some in the cast, notably Floyd King's Touchstone and Beth Glover's Audrey, take on such well-known personas as W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, and Mae West. As the story progresses, as well, comic spitfire Anjali Bhimani as Phoebe and Miriam Silverman as Celia are both given wonderfully free rein to wallow in comic accents and exaggerated movement.

The story ends in a blaze of MGM glory as the characters find happiness in a musical fantasy. As well as some of this works, one can imagine a few scenes which might prompt the Bard himself to climb into the director's chair and try to refocus the proceedings.


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