Having an actress who can convincingly play a young man is just one of the hurdles that directors and theatergoers face in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and in Sam Mendes’ solid staging of the comedy that’s playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre, Juliet Rylance beautifully fits the bill.
Before her character, Rosalind, transforms herself into a boy, Rylance looks ravishing (in an elegant contemporary evening gown from costume designer Catherine Zuber) and radiates warm femininity. After she’s been banished by her uncle Duke Frederick (Michael Thomas) and travels to the Forest of Arden, Rosalind dresses as a young man, where she schools her beloved Orlando (a dashing, but curiously muted, Christian Camargo), about the nature of love. Once she’s in this attire, Rylance can sometimes make audiences forget her gender. She’s not only a marvelous chameleon, she also delivers Shakespeare’s language with spark and decided musicality.
At Rosalind’s side in the forest are her cousin Celia (imbued with engaging pluck by Michelle Beck) and the clown Touchstone (played with zinging flair by Thomas Sadoski), who end up embroiled in romances of their own. Celia unexpectedly falls for Orlando’s once-oily older brother (played with surprisingly attractive smoothness by Edward Bennett), and the haughty Touchstone finds himself attracted to lusty shepherdess Audrey (Jenni Barber).
These couples are not the only people who populate the forest. Orlando is accompanied by faithful servant Adam (Alvin Epstein), while Rosalind’s banished father (also played by Thomas) and a group of his courtiers reside in the forest. Principal among them is the melancholy Jacques (played with understated sadness and intelligence by Stephen Dillane). Also on hand are a pair of shepherds, Corin (Anthony O’Donnell) and Silvius (a delightful Aaron Krohn), the latter of whom nearly loses Phoebe (Ashlie Atkinson), the caustic girl he loves, when she falls in love with the boy that Rosalind’s become.
Uniting the disparate plot lines is another challenge of the play and in Mendes’ lucid production, they seem to fit together perfectly, thanks to the hint of hoar frost that pervades both the court sequences and those in the forest. For the former, scenic designer Tom Piper backs the action with an almost bunker-like wall and lighting designer Paul Pyant cuts the space with steep angled white light, creating a sense of a vicious totalitarian state. After the action has shifted, the forest is barren and fog-filled, though ultimately, a spring of sorts comes.
But even as Piper bathes the stage in warm hues and the play reaches its naturally happy conclusion, one can’t escape the feeling that there’s a larger and more dangerous world awaiting the lovers.