As You Like It
John Doyle brings his directorial touch to this Shakespearean crowd-pleaser.
The Classic Stage Company production of As You Like It is one of three major takes on the play hitting New York this fall (Laurie Woolery and Shaina Taub's musical version at the Delacorte Theater having been one, as well as the upcoming Arden/Everywhere, which will use actors from around the world to emphasize the refugee aspect of Shakespeare's comedy). In such a crowded field, director John Doyle's more traditional approach runs the risk of fading into the background.
The story remains the same: Duke Senior has been usurped by his little brother Frederick (Bob Stillman plays both roles with Jekyll & Hyde extremity). Like all insecure new rulers, Frederick endeavors to drain the swamp of potential loyalists from the previous administration. First he banishes Orlando (Kyle Scatliffe) shortly after he bests Frederick's champion, Charles (David Samuel), in a wrestling match. Then he sends away Senior's daughter, Rosalind (Hannah Cabell), even though she is best friends with his own daughter, Celia (Quincy Tyler Bernstine). The two women decide to disguise themselves (Rosalind as a boy named Ganymede) and flee to the Forest of Arden with the court jester, Touchstone (André De Shields). Senior lives in exile in the forest with Orlando's depressed older brother, Jacques (Ellen Burstyn). While in the woods, Orlando professes his love for Rosalind by carving a series of poems into the trees. Despite his devotion to her beauty, he cannot seem to recognize it under her half-hearted drag.
Cabell gives a sympathetic and energetic performance as Rosalind. Scatliffe's Orlando is lovably dopey. Burstyn's delivery of the "Seven Ages of Man" speech is simple and effective. De Shields is magically manic as Touchstone, while Leenya Rideout gives a surprisingly memorable performance as Phoebe, a shepherdess who falls in love with Ganymede. Everyone is working really hard to make us laugh, which is probably why we so seldom do. Unfortunately, Doyle seems to have eschewed comedy in favor of a host of recycled ideas, leaving his actors to fend for themselves.
Our first indication of that comes in the form of Burstyn: In addition to playing Jacques, she also sits center stage with an open book (presumably, the play) theatrically reacting to the first several scenes. Here, she comes across like a human applause sign at a live taping of Full House, compensating for mediocre material with forced expressions of mirth and awe.
Doyle (who also designed the scenery) stages the play on a warmed-over version of his set for The Color Purple, replacing the floor at Classic Stage with long, unpainted boards. We hear the ground creak as the actors lurk behind the audience, creating a soundscape more appropriate for horror than comedy. Taken together with Ann Hould-Ward's attractive period costumes, we ascertain that the setting is the American South in the late 1940s. Jacques wears a short tie and sings jazz with Senior, who wears a comfy cardigan to differentiate himself from Frederick, clad in his elitist white dinner jacket. Touchstone wears a stylized butler's livery (argyle socks make a clever stand-in for motley). While we get the sense that Doyle wants to say something about race, we're never quite sure what that is.
The major problem with this production is that, for a comedy, it's just not that funny. Doyle embellishes the play with his usual kabuki-like flourishes: A change of lighting from incandescent to green signifies our arrival in Arden (lighting designer Mike Baldassari hangs a whimsical constellation of glowing orbs over the stage). The ding of a triangle marks the exact moment our characters fall in love. Sadly, Doyle neglects to refine the comic beats. An opportunity for slapstick is squandered by staging the wrestling match between Orlando and Charles to take place out of view of the audience. Even then, we don't hear exaggerated grappling sounds, which could have been hilarious. Instead, the match ends almost as soon as it begins. Moments like this are much harder to get right than indicative lighting and sound cues.
Stephen Schwartz's hit-or-miss original songs fail to inject much levity. But in fairness, the repetition of the grating rhymes are Shakespeare's own contribution.
The result is a middling production of a second-rate comedy. But at a zippy 1 hour, 45 minutes (sans intermission), it goes by quickly enough. For a so-so traditional production, this is indeed as we like it.