Apparently, all the world is not just a stage, it’s a soundstage.
Over at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, Director Maria Aitken has attempted to stage the gender bending play As You Like It as a genre-hopping Hollywood lark. Instead, what’s been created is a production that steers a forced and sometimes indecipherable course through time and space, grabbing as many easy laughs as possible along the way. From the cute but surprisingly unpolished silent film send-up opening to its most successful incarnation as a 1930s musical, As You Like It is decked out with camera guys, boom mikes and fast-working hipster makeup artists.
Through it all Shakespeare’s story tries its best to play out over a choppy montage of famous, albeit incredibly romanticized, moments from history as seen on the silver screen. The forest Arden is recast as a Valley Forge encampment, a Tara-esque Southern plantation and a parched bit of Western desert.
What’s not changed is the deception employed by the beautiful Rosalind (Francesca Faridany) to win her love Orlando (John Behlmann). She’s still a woman, pretending to be a man, asking Orlando to pretend she’s a woman. It’s hard to find too much fault with the deception. Rosalind has, after all, been through quite a bit.
After seizing control of his brother’s estate, Duke Frederick (Mark Capri) allows his niece Rosalind to remain. Despite near constant urging by her cousin Celia (Miriam Silverman) to be cheerful, years later the now adult Rosalind still cannot rid herself of the grim memory of the long past day when her father was banished.
In search of a little distraction the two women come upon a wrestling match between Charles, the Duke’s champion, and Orlando, the youngest son of Sir Roland de Boys. Not long before the match Orlando had resolved to abandon his neglectful older brother Oliver to make his own way in the world. It’s a sound decision as Oliver has made a decision of his own — to get rid of his younger brother.
Meanwhile (Shakespeare was big on the ”meanwhile”), Duke Frederick has decided that Rosalind has overstayed her welcome and demands that she leave the duchy immediately. Celia refuses to let her cousin go without her so she, along with the Duke’s fool, Touchstone (Floyd King), escapes with Rosalind to the Forest of Arden where love, deception and heartbreak await. But this New World Arden is simply not ready for its close-up.
Much of the issue with Aitken’s concept stems from the fact that the play’s gimmick – which seems a fair categorization as all this Hollywood glitz fails to add anything substantial or illuminating to the original story – is something of an inside joke for much of the first act. The move from bleak industrial black and white to the muted Technicolor of our heroes escape to 17th century New Amsterdam (yes, it does sound a bit like that scene in The Wizard of Oz, but it isn’t) is as abrupt as the shout of an impatient director ordering, ”Cut!” In fact, that’s pretty much what happens.
Perhaps more unfortunate than the confusing path of the overall production is the way the gadgetry overshadows some potentially fine performances. Faridany is everything one could want in a Rosalind. She is fiercely strong, cunningly clever and absolutely convincing when she assumes the disguise of the young man Ganymede. Too often audiences are forced into a wicked game of suspending disbelief when gown gives way to trousers. Faridany plays things with a sure and subtle hand that manages to shine through with some real moments of outstanding performance.
The same can be said for Silverman as Rosalind’s cousin Celia. She’s intended to be the serious Rosalind’s balancing other and Silverman is well cast. In fact, she’s one of the actors who makes good work of the film invention. Her turn as a Melanie-type Southern belle is actually quite funny while still managing to hold on to Shakespeare’s enthusiastic Celia.
Behlmann is another standout as Orlando. He has an engaging stage presence and brings Shakespeare’s language to life with a bright, fluid delivery. But it’s the loss of language that causes King’s performance to suffer. Not that King has lost one ounce of his flair, but the decision to transform Touchstone into comedic icons of Hollywood’s early days (think W.C. Fields) distracts from his skills and impedes his presence. He departs from being a character and becomes a garbled sight gag.
The danger with faulting an experiment like this, one that tries to re-imagine a classic, is the risk of being considered a purist and a killjoy. The truth is that there are times when Aitken appears to have hit on something rich and arresting. But she carries the joke too far and the charm of her patchwork production wears quickly at the seams.
When all is said and done, there is simply too little to like in this As You Like It.