As You Like It
An Elegiac Staging Makes for a Sterile Arden
Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Elizabeth Stage/Allen Pavilion, Ashland, Ore.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012, U–25&27 (left balcony)
Directed by Jessica Thebus
Audrey (Kjerstine Rose Anderson) carries her goat (Mandie Jenson) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of As You Like It. This is a rare moment of clever comedy in a production emphasizing intellectual imagery over the play's romantic soul and lusty comedy. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Full disclosure—or a confession, if you will—I dozed off during the first half of this production. Hey, late nights enjoying Ashland, early mornings writing, seeing two plays a day, enjoying a flight plus one glass of wine and local cheeses for dinner before this show. Really, you can't blame the play. Still, in the past, I have sat riveted to Shakespeare plays when I was far more tired and much more fed, and this production, while not soporific, per se, is lethargic.
Worse, it's sterile. As You Like It, as written, is a romantic romp. It has wrestling (physical and psychological), sibling rivalry, court intrigue, a court jester, an intensely funny melancholic, two women on the run (one disguised as a boy), a forest, Robin Hood–like merry men hunting deer in that forest, singing, and dancing. And it has excess of love: courtly love, romantic love, unrequited love, love at first sight, abiding love, and lusty love.
I didn't feel the love in this production, except the lightning-strike attraction experienced by Celia (a giddy, hyperactive Christine Albright) and Oliver (Kenajuan Bentley, proud in arrogance and still proud in humility). Particularly absent was any real passion between Orlando (Wayne T. Carr) and Rosalind (Erica Sullivan). Rather than a lack of chemistry between these two fine actors, both of whom turned in solid performances, this passionless relationship seemed to emanate from choices in interpretation. After the wrestling, Carr made Orlando's silence more stoic and respectful than dumbfounded and bashful, while Sullivan's Rosalind seemed to regard him more as a charity case to be pitied than a hunk of delicious man with a soul (or even simply as a really cute guy).
However, the decision that I see as most fatal to these characters was in their interactions in the Forest of Arden, when Rosalind, disguised as Gannymede, pretends to be Rosalind to cure Orlando of his crush on Rosalind. Instead of expressing her true shifting inner emotions (and just barely keeping a rein on them), Sullivan portrays Rosalind as obviously play-acting, deliberately switching from mood to mood to school Orlando. Carr's Orlando seems to be merely humoring the young boy and appears disinterested in the whole pageant. At no point do we see him falling in love with Gannymede, not even a little. At the end, he simply tires of the sport; there is no cracking under the pent-up romantic/sexual pressure of not having his Rosalind at hand. After one of his departures, Rosalind exclaims to Celia "how many fathom deep" she is in love. Though Sullivan speaks these lines in ecstasy, the source of that excitement is unclear. As nice and as handsome as Carr is, his Orlando just doesn't seem that into Gannymede, and he yet holds Rosalind at an emotional distance.
Director Jessica Thebus set the play as a storybook fairy tale and frames it in a conceptual calendar. The centerpiece of Todd Rosenthal's set is a giant clock hanging over the stage. Four seasonal "Graces," dressed in fanciful white gowns trimmed with their season's colorful flora, appear between scenes, making miming motions but not serving any notable functional purpose. It's like something out of the movie Hugo with its prominent clock and Méliès fanciful humanoids. Linda Roethke's costumes are a cross between Alice's Wonderland and a picture book of Grimm's Tales, especially in the court scenes. The cousins even make sport out of trying to sit down in their conical-shaped hooped skirts. In Arden, the refugees are wearing woodsmen's ragged garb, except Jacques (Kathryn Meisle), in riding boots and pants with an elegant long red coat. Rosalind appears as a classic page in the Robin Hood style, tight red pants and green jerkin.
In her program notes, Thebus writes how she has "always been so moved that at the beginning of the play, Rosalind, Celia, and Orlando are all struggling against injustice." Valid sentiment, but then she adds that "their mothers died long ago." I'm not sure where she got that. As he often did, Shakespeare simply left the mothers out of the story. Thebus' reading missing mothers into the plot opens the play with a pageant featuring three mothers in long white robes they've bundled up as if carrying infants in their arms. The Graces may be further personifications of the missing mothers, but that's not clear; it's all just pretty imagery that doesn't serve Shakespeare's romantic comedy at all.
Thebus also inserts two actresses in white bodysuits playing deer, sheep, and goats, and also the python and lioness that prey on Oliver. Yet, despite the fact we actually see deer in the Forest of Arden, this production cuts the hunting scenes. Audrey, lustily played by Kjerstine Rose Anderson, engaging in a test of wills with one of the goats is the production's heartiest comic moment, a bit of clever slapstick missing elsewhere. For example, the wrestling is so stylized that the two contestants never break a sweat (Charles remains dressed in his courtly clothes, even). And for all the farm animals and earthy behavior of Audrey and Phoebe—a headstrong Alejandra Escalante who, upon realizing she can't have Gannymede, almost swallows Daisuke Tsuji's Silvius in a kiss—we never feel like we've left refined civilization even when we are in Arden.
Thebus' take on this play is elegiac. It's a tableaux to be admired (and almost paced as slow as a tableaux) rather than a comedy to be experienced; a pageant to be watched and wondered at rather than a passion to be felt.
August 20, 2012