Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999
I am a great fan of Blythe Danner, and so I watched her as she made her way down the aisle to her seats last night, on the arm of her husband Bruce Paltrow. The nervousness was evident on their faces. Could their daughter carry a Shakespeare play? And, if she could, would the audience like her performance?
These were really the burning questions on everyone's minds before the curtain went up last night on the widely ballyhooed production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It". I had wondered vaguely about the other sixteen performers in the cast, but the real weight of this show sat squarely on the shoulders of Gwyneth Paltrow. While many in the audience were predisposed to like her - she is an appealing personage and many in the community have watched her grow up - others were no doubt itching to be able to report that she was nothing but a mindless starlet who could barely walk and chew gum at the same time, let alone recite Shakespeare.
My verdict is that Miss Paltrow is the spitting image of her lovely mother on stage - all grace and beauty. But she did not just walk in beauty, she acted Rosalind, who for the major portion of this play is disguised as a man. While she was lovely to look at in the early court scenes clothed in a gorgeous burgundy gown, reminiscent in style to her famous pink Oscar dress, I felt she really started to unwind and act once she was in drag as Ganymede set loose in the Forest of Arden. As they flee the court for the forest, Celia and Rosalind cry "Liberty!" and that is what the change of scene and costume seemed to give to Paltrow.
Phew! Now that the big question has been answered, what about the rest of the evening? Well, over all this is a very romantic, laid back "As You Like It". While there are a few good laughs to be had here, they come from physical comedy and rarely from Shakespeare's lines. This is a pity, because "As You Like It" is a fun and funny show. But Director Barry Edelstein seems convinced that Shakespeare must be declaimed, perhaps in fear that if the actors don't stand still and speak slowly the audience will not understand the Elizabethan English. Or perhaps he feels that Narelle Sissons's puzzling set and Gwyneth Paltrow in a pretty dress is all the entertainment the audience needs.
There is the sneaking suspicion that perhaps the rest of the cast either was ordered to tone it down, or in some cases was badly cast, in order to thrust the spotlight on Paltrow and make her look good. But a diamond sparkles even more brilliantly in a good setting than it does lying naked in your hand. Paltrow is fine, but much of the rest of this production is lack-luster.
I was especially disappointed in Mark Linn-Baker's Touchstone and Michael Cumpsty's Jaques. Linn-Baker is a respected comic actor with a lengthy list of stage credits. This could have been his night to shine, and he barely twinkled. Cumpsty just plain didn't get Jaques, or perhaps whoever cast him didn't. He was too handsome, too John Wayne. When he threw away the famous "all the world's a stage" speech I could have cried.
With Touchstone and Jaques muted, the whole play up to intermission was rendered postively tragical-romantical. Then we met Audrey (Lea DeLaria) and Phoebe (Angelina Phillips) and the broad comedy set in. I was frankly embarassed by Edelstein's conception of Audrey. The talented DeLaria was a good sport to don that cave-woman costume and play along. Phoebe was less offensive, but in Phillips less talent was wasted.
Alessandro Nivola was a comely but bland Orlando, which is not all his fault - Orlando is not the sharpest knife in the drawer to start with. Poor Megan Dodds as Celia is reduced to a Gwyneth Paltrow doppelganger, a mere feminine redundancy on the stage.
Sissons has designed a set so complex in its concept that I never did understand all of it, but it did provide some mental exercise while various dull actors were plodding through their blank verse. I understood the three locations - apple orchard, court, and the Forest of Arden - and their associated symbols - apple tree leaf, top hat and the leaf of some other tree (sorry, never took Botany). And I understood the idea of everything being framed, although I couldn't begin to tell you why or what it had to do with Shakespeare's play. But I would need a lengthy lecture from Sissons and Edelstein to understand the Court set. My best guess was that it might have been representative of the bottom of a swimming pool... Scenery shouldn't make your head hurt.
Costume designer Anita Yavich doesn't really identify a specific time period in her contribution to the show. The court folks of Act I could easily segue directly to a 1999 formal affair, but when they hit the Forest of Arden they turn more 1910, and the rustics are positively, well, rustic. And then there's that cave-woman costume...
The laid back tone was set by a four piece jazz band which was built into the back wall of the set. They played some cool original music by Mark Bennett. Keith Byron Kirk and Lea DelLaria were outstanding in their vocal renditions, which set Shakespeare to skat. Larry Marshall also sang well, but I found the choice of "Its a Wonderful World" for the final wedding scene cheesey. It was so out of place and so obviously a time killer to allow Paltrow to change from her men's clothing to her wedding dress. Couldn't Bennett have come up with just one more original number?
Overall, I give this production a B. Paltrow's performance is really what brings it up from a C, but Shakespeare doesn't write one-woman shows. Given how good she is, this show could easily have been the hit of the summer. Where's Roger Rees when you need him?
"As You Like It" runs through August 15 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs just under three hours with one intermission. Are there tickets? Well, there were none to be had until about two weeks ago and suddenly everyone I know who wanted to go has seats. Hmmmm.... Don't bother to call the box office (413-597-3400), the line is always busy, go in person. The box office is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 AM till 6 PM and Sunday from 11 AM till 4 PM.
(Go to my review of the Shakespeare & Company production of "As You Like It", which runs through September 2, 1999, in the Stables Theatre.)
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999