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As You Like It

Sucking the Melancholy Out

Royal Shakespeare Company, Park Avenue Armory, New York, N.Y.
Saturday, August 6, 2011, A–105&107 (center left stalls)
Directed by Michael Boyd

Deftly serious when it could be, a giggling romp when it would be, earnestly presented as it should be, this As You Like It scored on many levels.

The opening scenes on a sterile, white-paneled set included a bloody wrestling match, a serious Le Beau frightened for his own safety, Arden exiles suffering bitter cold and hunger, and the appearance of a waiting woman who had been tortured for information about the dukes’ fled daughters. All this portended a meloncholy rendering of what should be a fun-loving Shakespeare comedy.

However, there were hints of the romp to come. Charles Aitken’s Oliver was subconsciously studied in his manners as he was still learning how to wear his nobility, and James Tucker as the usurping Duke Frederick similarly wore his authoritative manners uncomfortably. Rosalind (Katy Stephens) and Celia (Mariah Gale) in nightgowns engaged in their own playful wrestling after meeting Orlando (Jonjo O’Neill). Richard Katz playing Touchstone wore old paint on his face and the suit of an escaped asylum inmate as he dryly delivered his wit.

The full turn from melancholy mood to rom-com mode came, ironically, with the first appearance of Forbes Masson’s Jaques. Replacing Amiens as the exiled court’s musician, Jaques walked out alone on stage, strumming a guitar and singing “Under the Greenwood Tree.” He enticed the audience into continuing applause with bows before inserting question marks into the first line Shakespeare gave Jaques, as in “More? More? I prithee more?” Then, again co-opting Amiens’ line, he warned the audience, “It will make you melancholy."

Boy, was he wrong. The audience provided a near continuous laugh track for the play’s second half and, with Jacques establishing the protocol, became engaged not only mentally but physically, too (I was pointed out as the married man in one of Touchstone’s speeches, and a woman’s sympathetic “aww” for William earned a remonstrative “oh, shush” from Touchstone). The humor thrived on all levels: psychologically, as Rosalind and Orlando worked through their feelings (with Orlando rashly kissing Gannymede at one point); intellectually, as Rosalind bantered with Orlando, Phoebe (Christine Entwisle), and Oliver, and Touchstone bantered with Corin (Geoffrey Freshwater, earning laughs through his honestly expressive reactions to the shenanigans of the courtiers and other shepherds); physically, as Sylvius (Dyfan Dwyfor) strummed his irritating ballads to Phoebe on a tiny guitar, (so irritating even Corin yanked the guitar away from him); and pure slapstick, especially involving Touchstone and Audrey (Sophie Russell). The two turned one obtuse line, “Bear your body more seeming, Audrey” into a bizarre pas de deux as miniskirted but still begrimed Audrey tried to navigate spike heels for the first time ever (the costuming was generally Elizabethan, except for this instance with Audrey in modern streetwalker dress).

Highlight of the play wasn’t even in the play itself. After Orlando sang one of his love poems to Rosalind he then announced his intention to attach his poetry to every tree in the forest. This, the opening speech to III.2, became the final moment before the intermission (the scene continuing with Corin’s and Touchtone’s entrance to open the production’s second half), and the audience exited the auditorium to find crudely written tomes festooning the lobby. Upon our re-entering the theater we discovered that the sterile stage had become the Forest of Arden in springtime, and more notes were stuck to just about every available wall space in the auditorium.

Stephens was one of the most effective Rosalinds I’ve ever seen. She actually made a believable man, even with a charcoal beard and mustache. She made sure her manners and voice were those of a swaggering teen-age boy, though sometimes she’d forget herself and have to be reminded via gesture or expression from Celia to sink her voice and shove her hands in her pockets. O’Neill was every bit the Orlando described by the other characters: good natured, intelligent, and so deeply caught in the throes of love with his Rosalind that he inescapably fell in love with her a second time when she was Gannymede. We’ve seen some good Olivers in recent productions, which certainly helps move this play’s plot along, and Aitken’s portrayal was this production’s greatest revelation. The socially conscious elder brother, scared into finding Orlando, believably converted and became quite the catch for Celia. Gale’s Celia was a spoiled child, always wanting (and generally getting) her way, whether it was to keep Rosalind around the court after the usurpation, convincing her friend to run away together, or taking up residence in Arden.

This production, as seems to be the nature of RSC productions these days, made some strange interpolations. One came on Celia’s exiting line “And I’ll sleep,” but instead of exiting, she lay down on the stage, leading to a dream sequence of her father and Oliver plus the other courtiers engaging in a dance of stags. (Having the night before seen Gale as Juliet, we’re wondering if her contract requires her to engage in some bacchanalian dance where men toss her around.) Another bit of strange stage business was Sir Oliver Martext as a demented priest carrying a flaming cross. And Duke Senior, here named Ferdinand, was played by Clarence Smith in almost unrelenting seriousness—even his laughter at Jacques and Touchstone sounded hollow. This portrayal made us wonder if his younger brother was simply trying to emulate the older brother’s tyranny but unable to master the sense of true authority required in a despot. It was no wonder that after Ferdinand, with great formality, took hold of the crown offered by the middle de Boys brother, Jacques decided to defect to the now-converted Frederick.

But these are deeply textual questions that mattered only as an undertone to the play. After Stephens sang the epilogue a cappella, hoping to have pleased us, we responded with our standing approval. More, prithee, more.

Eric Minton
August 8, 2011

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