Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 1999
Let me make this very, very clear. For 21 years now Shakespeare & Company has been mounting the Bard's work at The Mount in Lenox. This year they are doing "as You Like It" along with three other Shakespeare plays. This production is performed by their Summer Performance Institute, a graduate level actors training program, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the WTF's August production of this same play starring Gwyneth Paltrow. "As You Like It" appears to have first been written and performed in 1599, making this its 400th anniversary year. It has lasted this long without Ms. Paltrow, and I dare say it will out last her in the annuls of theatre history.
It is a sad comment on our star-struck age that I have to make such a disclaimer, but an alarming number of people, seeing "As You Like It" on the Shakespeare & Company schedule, have assumed that the WTF was "trying it out at the Mount" - as if such a thing has ever happened. If that brings more people to see this production, that's great because it is a fun and energetic evening of theatre.
Director Tony Simotes has decided to set the play in New York City in the 1890's. Central Park serves as the Forest of Arden. Popular songs of the turn of the last century are interwoven into the action, concluding with a finale that ingeneously sets Shakespeare's words to the music of Sir. Arthur Sullivan.
As long as you don't sit and analyze this concept too deeply, it works well. The "Gay '90's" costumes by Tracy Hinman Sigrist are great fun, and the piano music, played by Heather Faust, ties the production together in a neat packet. Shakespeare stole this story (as he did most of his plots) from earlier legends. What Shakespeare called the Forest of Arden was the region of Ardennes in France, but Shakespeare didn't get out much and so his Arden became a decidedly English pastoral place. It could as easily have been Central Park, where game was still hunted and livestock grazed in the 1890's, as any other sylvan glade on earth.
If you do sit and worry about the transition from England at the turn of the 17th century to New York at the turn of the 20th, you can find plenty to fuss about. Yes, baseball was played in Central Park in the 1890's, but why the heck are Duke Senior's men playing it in the Forest of Arden? There were shepherds and flocks of sheep in Central Park back then, but why are the shepherd characters dressed as street cleaners? And what do roller skates really add to Shakespeare? If you like your Shakespeare in doublet and hose, you will not care for this production.
But that is the production. The players are another matter all together. They are a delightful and versatile lot as they assay many roles of various sexes in the course of the evening . Kate Udall is a winning Rosalind - tal and alternately graceful and gawky. Katy Kohler Amory is cute as a button as Celia. I found Stephen Kosmicki a little bland and boyish as Orlando, but he grew on me as the evening progressed.
Judth McSpadden makes the most of the earnest and hilarious Jaques, delivering his "all the world's a stage..." speech with a simplicity that caught me off guard.
Shawn Ellinoff is a ball of fire as Touchstone, the fool. It is no wonder Jaques is so astounded at making his acquaintance. Terry Rzeznick makes the most of her comic turns as Charles the Wrestler, and Touchstone's country wench, Audrey. Jeffrey Schoenheit as Silvius and Ivanna Cullinan also provide some fun as the Shepherd/Street Cleaner and his Phebe, who would rather have the cross-dressed Rosalind than him.
"As You Like It" is running at Shakespeare & Company through September 2 in the Stables Theatre at The Mount. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. Call 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.
(Go to my review of the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of "As You Like It", featuring Gwyneth Paltrow as Rosalind, which runs through August 15, 1999, on the Main Stage.)
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999