As You Like It
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Derek Goldman
Produced by Folger Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
As You Like It is kind of a crazy play, and the Folger Theatre’s pleasant production of it does not add to coherence. In a nutshell: Orlando (Noel Vélez), youngest son of the late Roland du Bois, goes to the house of his father’s sworn enemy, the usurper Duke Frederick (Conrad Feininger), in order to take on the house wrestler (Scott McCormick). Why? Likes wrestling, I guess.
After Orlando whumps the house guy, Rosalind (Amanda Quaid), the daughter of the deposed Duke, falls madly in love with him. Well, everyone loves a successful wrestler. Suddenly, Duke Frederick, who has raised Rosalind since she was a child, takes it into his head that she has become a traitor and a no-goodnick, and he immediately exiles her into the forest. Incensed, Rosalind’s best friend Celia (Miriam Silverman), Duke Frederick’s daughter, decides to go with her. Naturally, in order to provide protection for the two of them, Rosalind disguises herself as a frail, fay-seeming boy. Because two young women alone in the forest clearly need a jester, they draft the acid-tongued fool, Touchstone (Sarah Marshall) to go with them.
By one of those crazy coincidences, Orlando, accompanied by his ancient retainer Adam (Terrence Currier) is also exiled in the same forest! And so is Rosalind’s dad the rightful Duke (Timmy Ray James), accompanied by two singing, deer-slaying minions (Matthew McGloin and Jon Reynolds)! And so is Jaques (Joseph Marcell), a cerebral depressive who has absolutely no connection with anyone else! Orlando, having decided that he also loves Rosalind, hits on the excellent strategy of writing love poems to her and sticking them on the branches of nearby trees.
When Rosalind discovers her beloved Orlando is nearby, and that he returns her love, she does the natural thing. She decides to continue to pretend to be a boy, and so disguised, to try to convince Orlando that he does not love her. She means to teach him that all women are mean, capricious, and unworthy, and to do so she has him pretend that she is Rosalind (which, of course, she is) and, when he does, behaves in a mean, capricious and unworthy way toward him. In the meantime, there is a general epidemic of falling in love – Celia with Orlando’s nasty older brother (Gene Gillette), who has undergone a conversion experience; Touchstone with a lissome goatherder (Jjana Valentiner); and a local virago, Phebe (Tonya Beckman Ross), unfortunately, with Rosalind in her boy disguise. Eventually, through mechanisms too complex to describe here, all is set to rights, and in a special added bonus the usurper Duke Frederick has a wholly unanticipated religious conversion offstage, and returns to the rightful Duke his rightful lands.
One of the interesting things about watching a production of all this nuttiness is seeing how the producing company makes these strange developments plausible. The Folger Theatre does absolutely nothing to this end. It tells the story straight, as if it were no less believable than, say, the war in Iraq (and, indeed, it may not be). Thus, for example, Orlando is wholly taken in by his beloved’s flimsy disguise, and when she reveals herself to him, he looks like he has just discovered a cure for cancer in his box of Cracker Jacks.
On the other hand, the Folger’s production is full of authentic, ineffably sweet moments. The actors embrace their characters’ salient characteristics without restraint, and leave it to the audience to resolve the incongruities. Sometimes this doesn’t work – Currier plays Adam so old and feeble that I wondered if he was meant to be the original Adam, and Beckman Ross’ Phebe is so mean-spirited that Silvius (Michael Grew), who loves her notwithstanding, appears to require the intervention of Dr. Phil.
But at other times director Goldman’s approach works beautifully. Vèlez is a wonderful Orlando, earnest and devastatingly honest, if a little obtuse. Quaid allows Rosalind to pour out her love for Orlando in a tsunami; retiring with Celia after her first meeting with him, Quaid’s head appears ready to pop off her body, and do a little dance on the floor. Silverman, sturdy and cheerful in the best-friend role, simply melts before Oliver when it comes her turn to love. Gillette, as Oliver, performs a rare double play: he makes us hate him at the outset, for his vanity and cruelty, and makes us cheer him at the end, when he comes to his senses. And Feininger, playing dual roles as Duke Frederick and Corin, a shepherd who matches wits with Touchstone about philosophy and manners, is superb.
Touchstone is almost always played by a man, but Marshall is just fine in the role. Her passion for the comely goatherder is no less credible than Touchstone’s usually is – which is to say, not terribly credible, as Touchstone is in general a fairly sexless characters. Love, however, expresses itself in unanticipated ways, as we all know.
Jacques – a portion of whose “Seven Ages of Man” speech graces the Folger’s ceiling – is one of the most difficult characters in all of Shakespeare. Who is he? Why is he there? What is the source of his sourness, and why does he seem to enjoy it so much? Goldman, and Marcell, play him as a man of hidden fury, whose anger creeps out unexpectedly in the middle of his carefully-metered sarcasm. It is a valid interpretation of the text, I suppose, but it makes it difficult to reconcile him with the man who expresses his respect and undying affection for the rightful Duke at the end of the play.
There is a minimum of stage fuss, allowing us to focus on the acting and writing. Clint Ramos’ scenic design is principally light poles, which project images of leaves during the forest scenes, and an inexplicable gaggle of office chairs while we are in the court. Fight Choreographer John Gurski stages the wrestling scene as a series of gestures, rather than an all-out contest, which is probably a good idea. (McCormick is effective as a Gorgeous George-type antagonist). Dan Covey does his usual competent job with the lights, and Sound Designer Andrè Pluess gives us some lovely, though not particularly memorable, original music.
When: until Nov 25. Tuesday- Thursday shows at 7.30, Friday and Saturday s at 8, and Sunday at 7. There are also 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. No shows on Oct 26 or 30 or Nov 6 or 22. The Sunday, Nov 28 2 p.m. show is sign-interpreted.
Where: Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street SE, Washington.
Tickets: $34-55, depending on date and seating. Friday, November 2 is college night, and tickets are $10 with valid student ID.
Info: call 202.544.7077 or visit the website.