As You Like It
As You Like It As Epic Disaster
Shakespeare Theater Company, Harmon Hall, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009 (seats D–20&21, left stalls)
Directed by Maria Aitken
In the Q&A session with the actors following the performance, one mentioned that because As You Like It is so well known, director Maria Aitken felt she could give the play a whole new reality. Thus you have the root sin so often committed in updating Shakespeare: imposing a place and time (or in this case, many places and times) on the script rather than gleaning a truth from the script that suggests a particular setting. It’s the fine line between insight and gimmickry, but in this particular case, the line is more a chasm.
In one bit of clever script editing, Aitken grouped all the pre-Arden scenes together rather than juxtaposing any of the forest scenes with the court scenes, and these opening scenes were set in a strict Puritan society, where evil acts are taken for righteous endeavor. That worked. When all the court refugees headed for Arden, it was presented as immigrants crossing the Atlantic to America. That sort of worked. And what is America, truly? Hollywood! Or, rather, a Hollywood movie. There the concept stumbled.
Arden was presented, in turns, as Valley Forge, an ante-bellum Southern plantation, a Reconstruction Southern farm, the Wild West, a dawn-of-the-century frontier town, and finally a 1930s Busby Berkley musical. Each of these might have worked as an As You Like It setting (especially the last, which is probably the most palatable way to manage Shakespeare’s fantastical denouement), but all in one production?
The characters changed with the times. Here they were speaking formal English, there they spoke in a Southern twang, next they were roustabouts, and so forth. The two female leads, Francesca Faridany as Rosalind and Miriam Silverman as Celia, pulled off the changing accents (after all, they were in disguise, so why not?), but others, not so well. In particular, John Behlmann’s Orlando didn’t just change his dialect; his personality transitioned along the way, too. The earnest young man who wrested Rosalind’s heart was a dour hick by the time he returned home from the Civil War and a cynical jade thereafter. Touchstone literally played the parts of many fools, including Groucho Marx and W.C. Fields. Jacques got totally lost in the schizophrenic settings: he started as the classic melancholy, showed up later as a hookah-toting beatnik, and ended up a cross between a journalist and an agent. Most disconcerting were certain end scenes when an on-stage film crew would yell “Cut!” and these characters suddenly turned into bored actors glad to be finished with that scene (this was intentional, I think).
Then there were the setpiece gags that misplaced Shakespeare’s comic genius. The most notable example was the “And so am I…” sequence in V.2, which was acted out as a preacher’s revival. It was kind of funny watching Aubrey Deeker as Silvius enraptured by the Holy Spirit describing what true love is, but it buried Shakespeare’s clever progression of the protestations of Silvius to Phoebe to Orlando to Rosalind who, as Gannymede, struggles to stay above the misdirected passion of the other three.
This production stretched characters to new depths, but that was more due to superb acting rather than the disjointed setting. In particular, Silverman raised Celia from a sidekick to Rosalind into the play’s centerpiece, and she accomplished this even with the fine performance of Faridany as Rosalind (good chemistry between those two, without which the schizophrenic production would have devolved into sheer madness). Another second-tier character who blossomed in this production was Oliver, Orlando’s older brother, schemingly evil at the beginning, genuinely reformed at the end (and, again, good chemistry with Behlmann). Mark Capri was riveting as the evil Duke Frederick, the real driver of those pre-Arden scenes. Unfortunately, the chaotic Arden scenes overwhelmed his Duke Senior. Deeker hammed up Silvius as a swooning swain, making him funny rather than pathetic; the only fault with his characterization was that he proved so sweet and devoted compared to the sour bore that Orlando had become, it was hard to see how Rosalind—by this time playing a 20th century woman—could not switch her affections to him. Anjali Bhimani made a lusty Phebe.
As You Like It in a Salem setting: that’s deep. As You Like It as a classic Hollywood musical: that’s fun. As You Like It as an Old West romp: much potential there. As You Like It as an immigrant’s tale: that’s intriguing. As You Like It as Puritans escaping to George Washington’s command of the French and Indians during the Civil War while passing through rough-and-tumble Tombstone on the way west to a New York City nightclub: that’s a cram course in gimmickry Shakespeare, a Poseidon Adventure of a production. With a play as clever and funny and poetic as As You Like It, that’s maddening.
December 4, 2009