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As You Like It

Theatre Review by David Hurst - September 28, 2017


Ellen Burstyn and Hannah Cabell
Photo by Lenny Stucker

As the first production of Classic Stage Company's 50th anniversary season, John Doyle's new staging of William Shakespeare's As You Like It is a frustrating amalgam of beautiful visual images that are undermined by the cast's inconsistent delivery of the text. A co-production with Bay Street Theater, this As You Like It was first mounted last month in Sag Harbor. The entire cast, which boasts the award-winning actress Ellen Burstyn, has now moved into Manhattan where they've set up residence in CSC's newly configured space. The results, unfortunately, are a decidedly mixed bag.

In Shakespeare's canon, As You Like It has its supporters and its detractors but everyone agrees its central character of Rosalind is one of the Bard's most challenging and rewarding female roles. New York audiences have enjoyed several wonderful productions in recent years including: Daniel Sullivan's smashing, southern bluegrass outing at the Delacorte in 2012 starring Lily Rabe; Sam Mendes' production as part of his Bridge Project at BAM in 2010 starring Juliet Rylance; and Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod rollicking 1994 production, also at BAM, with Adrian Lester heading Cheek by Jowl's all-male company. It would be nice to report that the lovely and talented Hannah Cabell's take on Rosalind at the heart of Doyle's vision for this gentle comedy joins the ranks of those productions but, alas, it does not. The reason the show falls short is both simple, yet surprising: the cast's delivery of Shakespeare's text lacks both clarity and volume.

The plot, filled with familial resentments and sudden romance, is perhaps known to you but easily summarized: Orlando (a handsome and eager Kyle Scatliffe) is agitating at the cruel treatment of his older brother, Oliver (the laid-back Noah Brody), who has recently inherited their father's estate. Oliver doesn't understand the source of his enmity towards his younger sibling but it's on full display as he soon plots to have Orlando killed. Similarly, Duke Frederick's (an excellent Bob Stillman) affections for his niece Rosalind (Cabell) have soured to the point he banishes her without warning, despite her lifelong friendship with his daughter, Celia (a tart-tongued Quincy Tyler Bernstine). Many years previously, Duke Frederick usurped the court of Rosalind's father, Duke Senior (also Stillman), his brother, who fled to the Forest of Arden but left his daughter Rosalind behind with Celia. Before the banishment, however, Rosalind and Orlando fall in love-at-first-sight when she leaps to his defense following his bout with a wrestler, Charles (David Samuel). Orlando tries to speak but he's left tongue-tied by Rosalind's teasing and obvious infatuation with him. Forced to flee from Duke Frederick's court, Rosalind disguises herself as a male youth, Ganymede, and heads to the Forest of Arden with Celia (as the shepherdess Aliena) and their court jester, Touchstone (a strutting Andre De Shields). Unbeknownst to them, Orlando has also escaped to the forest after learning of his brother's plot to kill him from his faithful servant, Old Anna (Cass Morgan). Now totally besotted with Rosalind, Orlando goes from tree to tree carving love poems to his beloved. As the two lovers argue and spar with each other in the forest three other couplings vie for our attention: Touchstone woos the goatherd Audrey (Morgan), the shepherd Silvius' (Samuel) love for shepherdess Phoebe (a violin-playing Leenya Rideout) goes sadly unrequited because Phoebe has fallen for Ganymede, and, Celia and Oliver also fall in love-at-first-sight, but they don't fight their attraction the way Rosalind and Orlando do. At the center of Arden, the play's cynic, Jacques (an elegant and understated Ellen Burstyn), disdains all the romantic goings-on and dispatches the famous "All the world's a stage" monologue that catalogues the seven ages of man.


Kyle Scatliffe and Hannah Cabell
Photo by Lenny Stucker

It's always nice to see Burstyn on-stage and she's fine here but she doesn't seem to relish playing the show's curmudgeon. She spends most of the play sitting on a trunk holding a huge copy of the collected plays of William Shakespeare, and then she disappears. Cabell and Scatliffe have an uneasy time of it in their combative romance; he talks too fast and lacks nuance, while she seems to be working too hard to convince us they have chemistry—which they don't. Bernstine is funny as Celia but her rapid-fire, under-the-breath delivery hampers her effectiveness. De Shields is a delight, and has the nattiest costume (courtesy of Ann Hould-Ward) on-stage but if he opened up his rainbow umbrella once he opened it a dozen times. For his part, multi award-winner Stephen Schwartz's jazz-inflected songs, of which there are many (the comedy has more songs than any other Shakespeare play), are quite lovely but they don't feel integrated into Doyle's overall vision of the show. (Isn't there always a piano sitting in the woods?) Stillman, who's frequently called up on to tinkle the ivories, does so again here with style and panache. And, for the record, Stillman is the one performer whose diction and delivery were audible for the duration of the show, which is just under two hours with no intermission. Sadly, it felt a lot longer.

While Doyle's directorial approach is simple and unfussy, the cast all seem to be in different productions vocally, speaking too fast and forgetting that words have consonants the audience needs to hear to understand what's being said. The actors are working in a three-quarter thrust space so their backs are regularly to audience members on one if not two sides of the playing space. One would think that seasoned actors would realize they need to project and enunciate more when audiences are literally behind them. I wondered several times whether the cast thought they were wearing body mic's (they're not) or were filming something for television (they weren't).

And if the text of the play and several minor characters have been pared down, the theatre itself has been enhanced by Doyle's set design that includes rotating the house's three-quarter seating a quarter-turn counter-clockwise, and laying a new floor of warm, wooden-planking. The turning of the audience seating allows Doyle to make use of a second tiered playing space on the south wall of the building as well as its staircase that the cast makes abundant use of during the play. If the entire effect doesn't exactly scream Forest of Arden at least the new wooden floor creates an outdoor ambience. The magic in this production comes almost entirely from the sumptuous lighting courtesy of Mike Baldassari. Hanging throughout the theatre at various heights is a collection of mid-century modern lights that can change their colored hues at the press of a button. From warm greens and blues to kaleidoscopic reds, oranges, yellows and pinks, it's these lights that give this As You Like It what little zest it has.


As You Like It
Through October 22
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.classicstage.org


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