BWW Reviews: CSC's AS YOU LIKE IT - You'll Like It Like That
It's often been observed of Shakespeare that his plays don't tell you what he thinks about most subjects. But it is hard to doubt that he believed in romantic love, that mad, intoxicating, all-encompassing feeling that inspires courtship and marriage. Many of his comedies are essentially love delivery vehicles, giddy confections that give the audience an extraordinarily broad license just to roll in the bliss of it. I think especially of Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. But the most love-mad of all is surely As You Like It. And thankfully, that love-mad champagne feeling is served up nearly full-force in the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's latest rendering of the play.
As most theatergoers know, the plot is set in motion by an evil, usurping duke (Gregory Burgess) who has banished the rightful duke, his brother (Gregory Burgess again), and by a churlish young nobleman named Oliver (Matthew Armstrong) who has tried to kill his younger brother Orlando (Vince Eisenson). Their respective misdeeds have already driven the rightful duke to flee to sanctuary at play's beginning, and drive Orlando after three short scenes to do the same. Deposed duke and fugitive young man hide out in a mystic neverland called the Forest of Arden, from whence the play never afterwards departs. Arden is a very different and much safer place. In Arden, as scholar Albert Gilman accurately states, "the chief dangers ... are falling in love or being worsted in a discussion." Many modern writers think that Shakespeare had in mind the British forest of Arden in Warwickshire, near his home in Stratford, but even Shakespeare's frequent carelessness about locations would have bridled at trying to make his audience forget that there's an English Channel between France, where the play begins, and Warwickshire. My own theory is that this was an Anglicization of Ardennes, the densely-wooded part of Northern France that saw much fighting in both World Wars.
Regardless, in Arden's green and pleasant land, there seems to be sheepherding going on (yes, you can graze sheep in forests), but it's all offstage, and doesn't seem to be very demanding of anyone's time, freeing up not only the toffs who philosophize about this or that or play at love, but also the commoners who are supposedly tending those sheep, so they can all get into the love action. Thus, when Orlando arrives, and, separately, his love Rosalind, the rightful duke's heir (Blythe Coons), her cousin Celia, the evil duke's daughter (Lizzi Albert), and their companion, the fool Touchstone (Keegan Cassady), all the elements are in place for an extended romp, involving most of the principal characters. By the end of the play there will be four pairings, but the impediments to things falling in place quickly are that Rosalind is disguised as a man, and that she and her cousin are incognito. (Don't ask silly questions like why she continues with the disguise once she gets to Arden, or why Orlando doesn't see through the disguise, or why the good duke doesn't recognize his daughter, even in drag. Well, actually on that one, there are lines that make it sound as if the good duke only left France recently, but also lines which make it sound as if he's been in Arden for years, which might make the non-recognition slightly less implausible. Shakespeare inconsistent? Who knew? Who cares?)
And so we get mistaken identities, and mock courtships, and parodies of bad love lyrics, and - oh, yes - the discussions Albert Gilman mentioned, mainly courtesy of a melancholy courtier named Jacques. In this production, Jacques is unconventionally cast, played by a woman, Jenny Leopold. The character is made female. I confess to having been nervous about this, having recently seen a woman badly miscast as Feste, the clown in Twelfth Night, who was apparently still a male character though the actress made no effort to act or appear so. Leopold is another matter entirely; I was in love with her rendering almost immediately. Jacques is absolutely critical to the emotional structure of the play; his/her famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech reminds us that all the ecstasy, all the joy and playfulness, that envelop the other characters and the audience too, are transitory, that there is darkness outside, that oblivion (Jacques' word) awaits. Shakespeare has Jacques walking out of the wedding feast at the end because there must be one character who prevents the giddiness from getting out of hand, keeps the emotional engine from overheating. And hearing the thoughtful naysaying come from a self-possessed female speaker, not bitter male one like some Jacqueses I've seen, just the viewpoint of an experienced woman who knows what she knows, somehow gave it a depth I had not heard before.
That is not to say that the production stints on the giddiness. You know, early on, that they're going to do the giddy part right, when Orlando and Rosalind first meet, and Orlando spends perhaps two minutes just comically trying to speak, he's so dumbstruck. The lines hint at this, but it is certainly not compelled by them. You keep waiting through the silence for the bit to be overplayed, but it isn't. Eisenson knows how to gasp without repeating himself. And there is a running gag throughout the production that when love at first sight befalls, a little band pops out from a hidey-hole and plays the recent hit Stuck on You by indie singer Meiko, with the telling lyric "You are the one I could see having fun with,/ Not just for tonight but for the rest of my life." They get to play it a lot, and not just for the couples that actually end up together for the rest of their lives - the miscues leading to some amusing business for the musicians.
Speaking of the music, it seems to be an integral part of the experience of the CSC's outdoor shows at the ruins of the Patuxent Female Institute in Ellicott City. The night I saw the show, there was an Irish folk band playing on the grounds to greet the arriving audience, and before the production, various ensembles from the cast showed off their musical chops (the songwriters were Barry Louis Polisar, Ingrid Michaelson, and Hall & Oates, so you know there was some range), and Shakespeare's own songs were also prominently featured, with new settings by Daniel O'Brien or Sean Chambers. Actors mugging and doing precision finger-snapping routines are a treat. There was also, as a warmup act, if you will, a swordplay demonstration by fight captains Teresa Spencer and James Jager, in character as Phebe and Silvius, one of the eventual couples in the play.
And it's not just the music or the bonus swordplay. There are lots of little gimmicks to add fun to the already lively proceedings, including a snowball fight (you read that right), a direct parody of WWF-style "wrestling," and lots of direct audience interaction which went over great with my 11-year-old companion. (Did I mention that kids under 19 are admitted free?)
If I had a criticism, it would be not with the principals, but with the way that the smaller parts were handled. Granted the exiled duke's court is some kind of Arcadian fantasy, as Shakespeare conceived it. But it gained some heft as a fantasy by displaying the manners and the talk of real courtiers, albeit courtiers who have moved to a different setting. This youngish ensemble frequently seemed more reminiscent of the flock of clownish disciples in Godspell than a group of nobles in pleasantly reduced circumstances. I'd also mike the singers. It only takes one loudmouth conversing with his family during the pre-show entertainment (and I had one in front of me) to render the lyrics almost inaudible. With proper amplification, that problem would have gone away. And even during the play, when the loudmouths were not up and running, the singers' voices were not always totally intelligible (unlike those of the actors, who were fine). I don't know why that was the case, but it was.
For the most part, though, this is a solid and ultimately respectful rendering of one of Shakespeare's most pleasing plays, the romantic equivalent of a hit of pure oxygen. It is impossible to dislike the play, or to come away from this production of it without a grin.
As You Like It, by William Shakespeare, directed by Patrick Kilpatrick, through July 20, weather permitting, at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah's Lane, Ellicott City, MD 21043. Free shuttle vans run from parking lot behind Circuit Court for Howard County, 8360 Court Avenue, Ellicott City, MD 21043. Tickets $15-$38. Children under 19 free. 410-313-8874. www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com .