Of the dozen or so truly great Shakespeare plays – that is to say, those plays considered among the best things ever written on the planet, in any language – As You Like It is probably the least coherent. But until now, we’ve never known why.
Shakespeare Theatre’s remarkable production at Sidney Harman Hall makes the answer clear: it’s a musical!
The problem has been that Bill Shakespeare was never able to find the right composer to set his terrific lyrics to music. But now, four hundred years after the fact, one has shown up: Michael John LaChiusa, who treated us to Giant and See What I Wanna See at Signature last season.
The Shakespeare-LaChiusa collaboration lifts and exhilarates a story that, despite its charm, wit, and high and memorable language (including the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech, which in a just world would be taught to all schoolchildren), is hard to follow, hard to believe and, frankly, a little tedious. In particular, this production shines a surprising spotlight on a couple of the supporting characters in order to hear the magnificent singing of two actors not known for musical comedy – the formidable Elliot Dash, and James Konicek. Konicek, of course, is notable for his basso profundo voice but this is the first time I have heard it raised in song. It is beautiful – operatic, pure, commanding, and as powerful as a Rules Committee Chair. Dash has a lighter voice, but one which is no less pleasing, and every time he sings you know you’re in for a good time.
There are lots of good times in As You Like It, though none of them make any sense. Or – has this ever happened to you? You’re Orlando, the younger son of the late Roland de Boys, and you’re played by John Behlmann. Your older brother Oliver (Barnaby Carpenter), instead of educating you as your father wanted, means to make you his permanent field hand. So you set off with the old family retainer (Ted van Griethuysen) to visit the usurper Duke (Mark Capri) and whump his prize wrestler (Dash; excellent fight choreography by Brad Waller), thus winning the heart of Rosalind (Francesca Faridany), daughter of the old overthrown Duke (also Capri) and close friend of the new Duke’s daughter Celia (Miriam Silverman). However, as dear dead dad was on the wrong side of the Duke-Duke war, the new Duke gives you the boot, and, unable to control his enthusiasm, heaves Rosalind ho as well. (He’s subject to humors, we’re told). Celia decides to go with her bosom friend, and, disguised as men and in the company of the great fool Touchstone (Floyd King), they set off to the Forest of Arden – which, in Director Maria Aitken’s fantastic conceit, is in the New World. And by coincidence, that’s where you’re going! And by further coincidence, that’s where the old Duke is hanging out, along with his merry, and melancholy, friends.
You are lovesick for Rosalind, and, the Internet not yet having been invented, you paper the Forest of Arden with poetry praising her beauty, grace and virtue – notwithstanding that as far as you know, Rosalind is (in Aitken’s reimagining) an ocean, and at least a hundred fifty years, away. As fate would have it, though, Rosalind turns out to be in the very hood you are, but rather than making it easy for you, she decides to continue to pretend to be a boy, and in that guise attempt to convince you of the futility of all love, and in particular your love for Rosalind.
Her disguise is good enough to fool Phebe, the shepherdess (Anjali Bhimani), who falls in love with the boy Rosalind pretends to be, much to the dismay of the rustic Silvius (Aubrey Deeker), who pines for Phebe himself. In the meantime the evil Duke has sent the evil Oliver after you, but along the way Oliver falls in love with Celia (whose reciprocation, Aitken implies, comes about through the assistance of the giant hallucinogen she ingests). After you save the sleeping Oliver from snake and lion, he throws off his terrible mission, joins forces with you, and just like that, de Boys are back in town. In the further meantime, Touchstone has found a sweetie (Beth Glover) and, though he struggles mightily against it, they find their way to the altar with the other couples. I will not try to tell you how this all gets straightened out, but I must mention that at the conclusion the new bad Duke has a sudden religious conversion, and surrenders his usurped Dukedom back to the good old Duke, at the very point of the play at which the audience will be, if not credulous, grateful. A good religious conversion is known to save an hour of dialogue.
It is an immense challenge to suspend disbelief for so many whoppers, coincidences and deus ex machinas, and if three-quarters of the way through the play you felt that it was you, rather than Celia, who had eaten the giant hallucinogen, few could blame you. I have seen many imaginative efforts to make the play make sense (the American Shakespeare Center, a few years ago, did a version in which Orlando and Rosalind both knew that her masquerade as a boy was a charade), but Maria Aitken – who directed the surprise Broadway hit The 39 Steps, in which an entire Hitchcock movie was done with four actors – is having none of it. She trumpets the virtues of this play and thumbs her nose at the difficulties which the plot presents. She does more than blow them up: she puts them under the magic lantern of the movies.
From the very first moment — a made-up scene, in which the old Duke is dragged away from young Rosalind (on alternate days, McKennah Edmunds and Julia Ferrara) under what appears to be an ancient kinescope – Aitken lets us know that we are watching a movie (“Will Productions” it says on a screen as the play opens), or, more specifically, watching a movie being made. Although the opening scenes play conventionally against Derek McLane’s bleak black set, by the time the characters set off for Arden, we have set off for Hollywood. Directors, sound men, camera operators, makeup artists and the like flitter on the stage and off, and the background sets – comprised principally of movie projections, and including moving images – appear and disappear at warp speed. We are in New Amsterdam in 1620; in Valley Forge in 1775; in the deep South before and after the Civil War; amongst the cowboys and oil derricks of the Industrial Revolution and the Gilded Age; amidst the flappers and finally, when, like all Shakespearean comedies, As You Like It devolves into weddings, in the tuxedoed elegance that was the Great Depression. Accents shift from high British to twangy Yankee to Southern drawl and nasal Western tones; Touchstone reappears as W.C. Fields and again as Groucho Marx (King’s comic genius, it must be said, is more original than imitative, but he is game here) and the object of his grudging affections turns into Mae West (Glover gets her right).
This startling take on the play does allow the actors to show off their gifts, and demonstrates the skills of the technical staff – in particular McLane, Costume Designer Martin Pakledinaz, and Projection Designer Jeff Sugg – to great advantage, but if it does anything to illuminate the play I could not discern it. It does remind us that Shakespeare can be set in pretty much any time and place, from the modern dress of Michael Kahn’s 2007 Hamlet to the prelapsarian Scotland in José Carrasquillo’s Macbeth at Washington Shakespeare Theatre the same year. This is a fun way to celebrate the brilliance of the playwright, but it takes us further away from the play. If we leave Harman Hall thinking about – well, prior productions of Hamlet and Macbeth – we have not been brought close to As You Like It, which was the matter on the table.
A few notes about the performances. I might as well get this out of the way first: I did not much like Faridany as Rosalind. The character is, among Shakespeare’s heroines, the one most given over to pure lust, but I never believed that the carnal spirit moved within the Rosalind Faridany gives us. She has a great deal of dialogue, which she delivers at a quick pace, and I missed some of it, though a better-trained ear might have caught it. There are moments, though, when Faridany shines – particularly in the scene in which she reveals her true identity to the multitude gathered to hear her pronouncement.
Otherwise, the performances are good, even excellent. Behlmann is a compelling Orlando, profoundly earnest and authentic, and even when the character is at his goofiest – swinging from a vine, sticking poetry on trees – Behlmann makes it part of a well-considered character arc. Aitken makes a bold, and successful decision in casting Capri both as the usurper Duke and the true Duke; the manic, dangerous edge he brings in playing the usurper comes across as leadership when he plays the good Duke. Andrew Long, much celebrated for his fierce portrayal of fierce characters, here plays the melancholic Jacques, who delivers the “Seven Ages” speech. Long makes Jacques the happiest melancholic ever – an interpretation which, while startling, is justified by the text – and imbues his world-weary pronouncements with a sort of giddy, aggressive joy. It is of a fit with Aitken’s take on the play, and fun to watch.
Van Griethuysen folds himself nicely into the subordinate character of old Adam, the retainer; as we watch him we see a vigorous old man who could tell us a story, but won’t tonight. (He also briefly, and unrecognizably, plays a vicar later in the production.) Carpenter, to his credit, plays the bad brother with a bit of subtlety, so that when he turns into a good brother it does not seem impossible or even jarring. Silverman is a delightful presence onstage throughout, and her post-chemical dream sequence, in which she floats through the air on the arms of men until she lands in Oliver’s embrace (Daniel Pelzig’s choreography is out of this world) is puffy with romance. Dash performs several different characters with verve and distinction, in addition to singing like a dream. As a bonus, it is obvious that both he and Behlmann are athletes, giving the wrestling scene a credibility it doesn’t usually have. Finally, I loved the work of the high-stepping Bhimani, a fine actor and superb dancer.
If this production of As You Like It were a play, I wouldn’t know what to think. But since it is a musical, I can turn off the brain-box and just enjoy the visual treats, the beautiful LaChiusa music, the clever lines and rich language, the marvelous special effects, and all the eye and ear candy that Aitken has laid out for us.
As You Like It
Book by William Shakespeare
Music by Michael John LaChiusa
Lyrics by William Shakespeare
Directed by Maria Aitken
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor