Bob Stillman and Ellen Burstyn in ‘As You Like It.’ (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)
By Samuel. L. Leiter
Some Shakespeare plays seem to arrive in waves of revivals entitling them to be considered a year’s “Bard du jour.” Recent favorites have included Macbeth, King Lear, and Julius Caesar. New York is currently experiencing outbreaks of Measure for Measure and As You Like It. The latter, seen a few weeks ago in Central Park as a musical, is now being given a somewhat more faithful showing at the Classic Stage Company; in October, a politically pointed adaptation called Arden/Everywhere will make its bow.
When you learn that the CSC’s charming but not altogether successful version (originally seen at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater) runs only an intermissionless hour and 45 minutes you know at once that a lot of tinkering has been going on. Some scenes and characters have been trashed or condensed so the action can focus on the play’s four love stories. The production is the brainchild of CSC artistic director John Doyle, hewing to his signature style of paring away as much as possible of the script and aiming for less-is-more visual beauty.
Doyle’s casting raises a few problems. Ten actors play the adaptation’s fourteen named characters, reduced from Shakespeare’s twenty-one; given the de-emphasis on physical transformation, I wonder if those unfamiliar with the play will be able to easily determine who’s who.
As common nowadays, the casting is colorblind and crossgender, at least for Jacques, played by the 86-year-old Ellen Burstyn in male drag. Jacques, of course, is the melancholic brother of the scheming Oliver (Noah Brody) and the romantic Orlando (Kyle Scatliffe), who falls for Duke Senior’s (Bob Stillman) daughter, Rosalind (Hannah Cabell) and, when she’s exiled, follows her to the Forest of Arden.
In the program, Doyle says he has no interest in type casting and is “much more interested in representing the humanity of our times on stage.” Thus Sir Rowland de Boys’ sons are played by a white octogenarian and two much younger actors, one black and one white, who could easily be Jacques’s great-grandsons; they’re also so different in size they look more like Lenny and George than Oliver and Orlando.
Doyle’s staging is in the three-quarters round, allowing the actors—within the relaxed, fourth-wall-breaking atmosphere—sometimes to speak directly to nearby spectators. At one point, someone is even dragged on stage. When I went, the guy’s date immediately began recording the bit on her phone, even running to get a better view from the other side of the stage. As if this weren’t squirm-worthy enough, actor Noah Brody then snatched the phone so he could take a selfie with it.
Doyle’s bare, wood-planked, brick-backgrounded set is saved from boredom by a delightfully attractive arrangement of multiple, varisized lighting globes, hung at different heights, each with an acorn-shaped cap. Lighting designer Mike Baldassari makes the bulbs morph from white to green (a wonderful way to suggest the Forest of Arden) to a rainbow spectrum of primary colors accentuating the changing moods and places.
Broadway’s Stephen Schwartz composed the wonderful, jazz-inflected tunes for this most song-heavy of Shakespeare’s comedies, all of them set to Shakespeare’s lyrics. Again, as per Doyle’s familiar approach, several actors are musicians, most notably Leenya Rideout, the excellent Phoebe, on fiddle and cello, and Bob Stillman, the noteworthy Duke Frederick and Duke Senior, on piano.
The production begins as a kind of storytelling session as the actors gather around Jacques, seated on a trunk. It’s one of the only set pieces in a staging that not only avoids scenery per se but uses as few props as possible; a multicolored umbrella thereby gains considerable attention. (Doyle even avoids the play’s wrestling match, having it imagined somewhere behind the audience’s heads.)
Jacques then sits by, script on lap, intently watching the others act, like a director, until he ultimately vanishes. Why he’s there beats me; it almost seems that given the little Burstyn otherwise has to do, Doyle created the business to give her more stage time. Even sans words, however, her charisma draws focus.
Naturally, Burstyn not only makes every word count, she lands many laughs. She delivers her “Seven Ages of Man” speech simply, with a sort of restrained and tired cynicism, like someone whose age (hers, not Jacques’s) has brought unwanted wisdom, ending on a note of tearful depression. She avoids overdoing its images but can’t resist a bit of indicating (“fair round belly” and the like) or quivering her vocal cords to imply decrepitude.
The company is dressed by Ann Hould-Ward in an incongruous mashup of contemporary and retro, with a couple of unattractive steampunk touches. Some of it’s viable; some of it’s questionable, like Orlando’s field hand-like overalls, with one shoulder strap hanging loose; and some of it’s just odd, like Touchstone’s (André De Shields) knickers, argyle socks, tails, waistcoat, and ascot.
Cabell gives us an energetically smart, no-nonsense, playfully diverting Rosalind, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine makes Celia a cutely eccentric sidekick. De Shields turns his prancing Touchstone into a far more prominent role than usual, creating a distinctively attention-grabbing fool-gentleman. The others, their Shakespearean verbal skills diverse, range from fine to fair.
I’ve liked other As You Like Its more but, for all its flaws, I can’t deny I liked this one well enough.
As You Like It
Classic Stage Company
136 E. 13th St., NYC
Through October 22
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).