As You Like It
If You Feel Like a Room without a Roof
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, Ellicott City, Md.
Sunday, June 22, 2014, third row, four seats to the right of center
Directed by Patrick Kilpatrick
Orlando (Vince Eisenson) tries to appease Rosalind (Blythe Coons) disguised as Gannymede in the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production of As You Like It. Photos by Teresa Castracane, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.
To call a moment of silence—a long moment of silence—the highlight of a Shakespeare production is no faint praise, in this case. The moment, in fact, exemplifies what is so right about Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's otherwise bustling, hustling, and good-times production of William Shakespeare's As You Like It. It has stage business interpolations, a major excision, and gender-switching-inspired refocusing of certain characters, but even with this fiddling of the text, Director Patrick Kilpatrick keeps the whole proceeding grounded in Shakespearean intentions.
And Shakespeare's main intent with As You Like It is to get people to laugh. The dark vein running through the play? It surfaces only when its bite is most effective.
As You Like It is the only entry in this summer's outdoor Chesapeake Shakespeare Company In-The-Ruins program at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City, Md. The company is preparing to open its new downtown Baltimore theater in September, but CSC plans to continue staging plays against the roofless shell of the 19th century girls boarding school in summers to come. The old once-windowed walls serve as the backdrop to a tri-level stage, the audience picnics on the lawn to a pre-show concert by members of the cast, and free bug spray is offered at the gate.
It's a perfect environment for such an outdoor play as As You Like It, but Kilpatrick doesn't seek his inspiration in these external elements. Arden, in fact, is represented by trees made of fabricated metal stuck into the stage and popping up inside the institute windows. They are bare for the winter scenes, with leaves added for the summer scenes. The only real blending of play and natural environment comes when Keegan Cassady as court jester Touchstone snatches off leaves from a real tree neighboring the stage and shoves them in his mouth as a snack. It's such a perfect Touchstone moment as this court jester tries to adjust to forest life by engaging in behavior he believes fitting for a shepherd but ends up, bent over, spitting out the leaves before he even reaches the stage.
Rather, Kilpatrick seems to have drawn some of his inspiration from the very walls of the institute, which shuttered in the 1890s. He sets the action in an 1890s England. Kelsey Hunt's costume designs for the court look like something the residents of the Teddy Roosevelt White House would wear while Arden is peopled with gypsys in colorful dresses and rustic vests. Both Jaques and Lebeau seem to have stepped out of the girls boarding school itself, with Jaques (played with dour aspect by Jenny Leopold) as a woman educator on the 19th century lecture circuit, and Madame Lebeau a governess, stiffly prim and proper, slightly irritated by and dismissive of the silly behavior of the two princesses. Amber Fullmer plays Lebeau and also turns Oliver's and Orlando's brother, Jaques de Boys, into their sister who has been off at school.
Kilpatrick's keenest inspirations, though, derive from the text, and the outdoor stage perfectly caters to one of this production's many surprising but simple textual interpretations. When Duke Senior (Gregory Burgess, who doubles as Duke Frederick) first appears as the play shifts to the Forest of Arden for the first time, he is stalking something. He sees his prey and he unleashes his weapon: snowballs aimed at some of the lords who had joined him in banishment. The entire party then engages in a snowball fight to the vocal delight of the children in the audience around us. Snowballs on the second day of summer? There's theater magic. It also serves as a visual allegory for Duke Senior's opening speech comparing the "churlish chiding of the winter's wind" in the forest with the "painted pomp" and "peril" of "the envious court."
This production is full of such subtle touches. Corin and Touchstone carry out their conversation comparing country life with court life while fishing. Corin (Jeff Keogh) catches a fish with each cast; Touchstone can catch a fish only by stealing one behind Corin's back. The production kicks off an effective running joke when Orlando (Vince Eisenson) and Rosalind (Blythe Coons) first lay eyes on one another; the action stops, and a group of gypsy minstrels emerge from the wings playing Meiko's "Stuck on You." "'Cause you are the one I could see having fun with / Not just for the night, but for the rest of my life / You are the one I could never be done with / I want you tonight and for the rest of my life / Doo doo doo." The minstrels emerge again when Corin first spies Celia (Lizzi Albert). Sure, nothing in the play suggests Corin is crushing on Celia, though Albert makes some of her line readings reflect her annoyance with his infatuation; but this choice is wise show business, nevertheless, for it establishes custom that then enhances the effectiveness of its next instance: when Phoebe (Teresa Spencer) encounters Rosalind disguised as Gannymede. The "Stuck on You" trio returns when Silvius (James Jager) is doting on Phoebe, and she responds by heaving an apple at them. With some trepidation, then, they come out hesitatingly playing the song when Celia and Oliver (Matthew Ancarrow) meet.
This determination to have fun with this play is exemplified with the performance of Eisenson as Orlando. A veteran of CSC's resident acting company, Eisenson is not only adept at speaking Shakespeare's verse, he gleans subtext and nuance and finds there a young man who has nobility in his soul but lacks the education of either formal schooling (as his sister has) or the court (as his brother has): Eisenson plays fumbling nobility pitch-perfectly. This manifests in some of the best-acted silence I've ever seen in a Shakespeare play, after Orlando wins the wrestling match and the smitten Rosalind gives him her necklace. We know from the script he is speechless here: "Can I not say, I thank you?" he says, calling himself "a mere lifeless block," and after Rosalind returns a moment later he says, upon her second departure, "What passion hangs these weights upon my tongue?" Both passages of silent time are extended here interminably long—but only interminably for Eisenson's Orlando, who keeps trying, trying, trying to say something, anything, and Albert's Celia, who observes the situation's increasing awkwardness. Coon's Rosalind merely waits patiently but expectantly, content just to look at Orlando. "Will you go, coz?" Celia finally implores, certain that Orlando will never ever untie his tongue.
But oh how much he wants to. He tacks and carves his passion on every tree (the poems display his lack of real schooling, especially in his attempt to rhyme Rosalind, which this production turns into a repeated joke). Gannymede gives him a vocal outlet when he pretends to be Rosalind (though he really is Rosalind). Eisenson's Orlando agrees to Gannymede's ruse because, why not? might be fun, and so he becomes baffled by the intensity with which Coons' Rosalind acts out the game.
The notable cuts to the text remove Arden's supernatural element: a lion stalks Oliver, but no snake, and Hyman is gone from the last scene. Even when knowing there is a snake and Hyman in Shakespeare's script, these elements are not at all missed here. Also excised are Touchstone's vulgar version of the Rosalind rhyme and his calling Corin a bawd for breeding cattle and sheep; this As You Like It is determinedly G-rated, too.
More inexplicably, Audrey plays out Touchstone's description of the "lie seven times removed"; his line, "bear your body more seeming, Audrey" becomes her cue to begin performing as he narrates. It's an odd choice—how would the sluttish goatherd know about dueling etiquette at court? The only textual explanation is that Touchstone so wants to close the gap between his being in Arden and his yearning for the court that he has trained Audrey in the ways of the courtier. A theatrical explanation, though, offers more justification; the skit gives the audience more Sarah Taurchini, who combines fully fleshed acting skills and athleticism to create a charmingly spirited Audrey. Another physically funny performance is turned in by Spencer as Phebe, a personality who can best be summed up in the fact that she will always clamber onto the stage rather than take Sylvius's hand and walk up the steps (Spencer is the company's fight captain, and Taurchini is the company's dance captain, and both skills are on full display).
Speaking of spirited performances, Albert provides further evidence that as great a heroine as Rosalind is written, Celia can be the play's real star. Albert plays her as a driving force in the play's first scenes; no spoiled brat, this is a strong Celia who knows exactly what her father, Duke Frederick, is and has done. She immediately stands up to him when he banishes Rosalind, and he slaps her: "You are a fool" he says. We know better, and we see her resolve grow firmer to run away with Rosalind and start a new life as sheepcote owner (only exhaustion from travel daunts her, but no more so than for Rosalind and Touchstone). When Celia literally moves into the background as Rosalind acts out Gannymede's encounters with Orlando, Phebe, and Jaques, Albert plays her as a chorus, commenting by expression on her cousin's shenanigans. As I've written in previous reviews, this is another production of As You Like It that requires two viewings, one to watch only Albert's Celia.
Jenny Leopold as Jaques in the production of As You Like It. Photos by Teresa Castracane, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.
As for the other significant female in this production, Leopold, in Ottoman overcoat and black box hat looking vaguely Nanny McPheeish, maintains a schoolmarm manner that plays right into Jaques's superior attitude to the others, especially Orlando. It also frames the seven stages speech as a lecture in philosophy, except she uses no lectern. Instead, she roams the audience using patrons as visual examples of each stage of life, though, wisely perhaps, she doesn't finger any specific infants even then mewling and puking in their mothers' arms. She significantly uses Duke Senior as her example of the pantaloon, and then she stares out toward "second childishness and mere oblivion" in the form of Adam being carried by Orlando through the audience toward the stage. As the starving Adam (Keogh) ravishingly eats the fruits handed him, Leopold's Jaques watches him intently, sadly, seeing there not only the weight of their sad times but the warring factions of hope and hopelessness that make up a man's life. It is in such a vein of study that, at the end when Duke Senior is restored to his dukedom, Jaques chooses to join with the converted usurper Duke Frederick. "Out of these convertites there is much matter to be heard and learned," she says.
Only then does the fact that Jaques is a woman matter. "Stay, Jaques," cries out Burgess's Duke Senior. "Stay," and he falls to his knees as he gives her an imploring look. In this play, where love at first sight is turned into a running joke, here we see a love out of growing friendship and comfortable familiarity. After looking at him a moment, she turns and leaves. "Proceed, proceed," Duke Senior says sadly, slowly getting to his feet. Shakespeare did not write Jaques as anything but a man and gives no hint that a romantic yearning for him has evolved in Duke Senior; but through this device we, the audience, feel the stab of true melancholy that Shakespeare has written into this final scene, showing that happiness and enfranchisement too often come at the cost of emptiness and disenfranchisement of others.
We, though, are not left empty. We leave feeling fulfilled, content, Pharrelly happy, even—yet thinking. That's probably what Shakespeare intended.
June 24, 2014