Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2004
(On July 28th Christine Marie Brown took over the role of Rosalind. Click here to read my update.)
I saw As You Like It with a crowd of Elderhostel folks. An elderly man was seated to my left and when the final curtain fell (metaphorically, of course, there is no proscenium curtain in the Founders' Theatre,) he turned to me and said, "I just loved that." We were complete strangers and had not spoken at all until that moment, but I understood his need to share his pleasure with someone else who had experienced the same thing. Little did he know he was speaking to the one person in the room who couldn't just sit back and enjoy the show. But I appreciated his remark nonetheless. It helped me remember that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes a good show is just a good show and it doesn't need to be analyzed and picked apart - it just needs to be enjoyed. A performance is not ever about the critic in the third row, it is always about the joy a well wrought production can bring to the paying customers who fill the seats.
As You Like It has been one Shakespeare's most popular and most often produced comedy for several centuries. No doubt the gentleman who spoke to me had seen the play several times before, and its familiarity was one of the things that he loved about it. Looked at with a critical eye, As You Like It is a silly hodge-podge of plots and characters, but it is so beautifully written that it doesn’t matter how ridiculous it is. It is always wonderful to hear Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage…” speech, and especially when rendered by the peerless Jonathan Epstein.
Preview articles on this production have focused on the director and the actors, all of whom are very good, but the thing you walk out of the theatre holding very dear is how it all looked. Kris Stone is credited with the scenic design, which includes large hallucinatory fiddlehead ferns and flowers. Lap-Chi Chu is the lighting designer, and Jacqueline Firkins has done the costumes. But undoubtedly everyone sat down with director Eleanor Holdridge and came up with the overall themes of the play which she wanted highlighted visually.
This As You Like It moves from winter to riotous spring, from dark indoor court scenes fraught with intrigue to lusty bright outdoor love scenes reeking of the freedom children feel on summer vacation. At first everything is white on black, except for brilliantly green apples that constantly spill about the stage with untamable abandon and Rosalind’s cascade of red hair. Then the palette begins to shift to white on black, and by the time everyone is in the forest of Arden the light has won out over the dark and color begins to creep in – that same apple green, a vivid and satisfying orange, cobalt blue, and occasional ripe berry shade that might be red and might be purple, depending on who you ask.
Holdridge and her design team attempt to give the whole play an hallucinatory, dreamlike quality. This leads to some magic moments visually – notably when things appear from or disappear into the three round trapdoors in the floor of the stage – but doesn’t work with the text. As You Like It may be nonsensical and disjointed in places, but it is not a dream play. Holdridge very clearly draws a parallel with Alice In Wonderland when Orlando and Adams vanish down a trap door all dressed in black and reemerge a few minutes later all in white, but unlike Alice, or the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream there is no awakening. The play ends with a real, honest to God Deus ex Machina as Hymen descends to marry the four couples on stage and a miraculous messenger arrives with the implausible news that the evil Duke has had a religious conversion on his way to kill them all and has decided instead to become a hermit and give everyone back their lands and powers. You wouldn’t need all of that if this was a dream, the dreamer would simply wake up.
Sarah Rafferty, who attended Yale School of Drama with Holdridge, is a beautiful and girlish Rosalind. A little too girlish, I thought, both for her own earthly years and for the character’s masquerade as a young man. Anne Gottlieb is a dark and cranky Celia. It is a great relief when she finds true love with Oliver (Jason Asprey) and can kick back and have some fun instead of constantly running after Rosalind complaining.
Michael Milligan struck me as a kind of a wimpy Orlando, until I went back and discovered that I have said that about all the actors I have ever seen in this part. Obviously Orlando is just kind of a wimpy guy, especially compared with Rosalind’s wit and verve. Milligan was genuinely touching in his scenes with Dennis Krausnick as Adam, and made a good foil for Rafferty’s Rosalind.
James Robert Daniels is cast as both the evil Duke Frederick, Celia’s father, and his kindly brother Duke Senior, Rosalind’s father. Holdridge has been quoted as saying that she sees parallels between the relationship of Rosalind and Celia and her own relationship with her twin. Having Rosalind and Celia’s father’s played by the same actor makes them in essence twins and makes the girls’ deep friendship more meaningful. It also shows the two Dukes as mirror images of each other, here literally in black and white.
As Touchstone Kevin G. Coleman once again plays one of Shakespeare’s fools. I am sure there have been actors over the centuries who specialized in the fools’ roles, but I am not quite sure I understand why Coleman and why now. He is enjoyable, but it was like déjà vu all over again. Last summer I found Coleman to be a “sweet and bitter fool” in King Lear. What might I have made of his Jacques this year?
Of course, I would never trade a chance to see Jonathan Epstein perform. When I saw that Duke Senior’s men in the Forest of Arden had been costumed all in white my first thought was, “but not Jacques.” I am so used to seeing the melancholy man all decked out in black like a mock-Hamlet. So I was delighted when Epstein made his entrance in a lovely rainbow of whites, creams, doves, and beiges. Clothes do not make the man. Epstein conveyed Jacques mood with his soft and deliberate speech, a trick that made you really listen to him.
Dan McCleary, Susannah Millonzi, Ariel Bock, and Jason Asprey play the rustics without turning them into stereotypical boobs. It is fun to watch Asprey in his dual roles, as the handsome and dashing Oliver at the beginning and end of the play, and as the shepherd Corbin in the middle. I loved his fake tattoo that read “I (heart) Ewe” and his bright blue sheepskin slippers in the latter role. His rustic accent, while no doubt very authentic, was a bit hard for us Yanks to understand.
Millonzi was an impassioned Phebe, and McCleary most loyal and befuddled as her suitor Silvius. Bock, an accomplished actress, was obviously having fun as the plain and simple Audrey, a middle-aged virgin determined to find happiness at last with Touchstone.
There is a lot of music in this production, much of it nicely performed by Tony Molina, a suave singer, in a variety of small roles. He is quite grand in his final entrance as Hymen, in his apple green suit jacket with a cascade of petals falling from under his umbrella.
As I sat with the older folk, across from us were two young children – a girl of about seven and a boy of about nine. Both were well behaved kids, but the girl was too young to be bothered with all this blank verse. I often caught the boy, however, watching the performers with a look of rapt awe. Many decades from now he will turn to the stranger on his right at the conclusion of a performance of As You Like It and say, “I just loved that” and in his mind will be images from his childhood of bright orange flowers and bright green apples.
As You Like It is running at Shakespeare & Company through August 29 in the Founders' Theatre on Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs three hours and ten minutes with one intermission and is best enjoyed by people over the age of 10. Call 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004