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BWW Reviews: Attenborough's AS YOU LIKE IT a Brilliant but Strangely Melancholy Comedy

BWW Reviews: Attenborough's AS YOU LIKE IT a Brilliant but Strangely Melancholy Comedy

If you are a Shakespeare connoisseur who knows the plays and who thrills at new stagings of familiar material, by all means get thee to the Lansburgh Theatre to see Michael Attenborough's fascinating production of As You Like It. With a rock-solid cast, and a Spartan stage design that throws their great work into high relief, you will be in for a rich experience indeed.

If, on the other hand, you are unfamiliar with the Bard, and want to see a comedy because you've heard they're great fun, I would direct you elsewhere. Attenborough's style, while rewarding for the cognoscenti, is not for all seasons, and can leave first-time audience members utterly bewildered. Some of the very touches that enthrall old hands like us may, unwittingly, become obstacles to appreciation for others.

As the title suggests, the play is a nod and a wink to Shakespeare's audiences, his way of saying that he knows what they want and he'll give it to them in heaping doses, no matter how ridiculous. The plot, improbably enough, imagines what might happen when a whole crop of nobles are exiled to the Forest of Arden, a territory the Bard knew well because it bordered on Stratford-upon-Avon. The bucolic location makes it possible for a wide variety of characters to meet and speak to each other, when they might otherwise never have met. The Forest is the perfect place for dukes, jesters and noble maids to parley with illiterate shepherds as if it were perfectly normal, and with often-hilarious results.

The romantic leads here, Andrew Veenstra and Zoë Waites, are well-matched as Orlando and Rosalind; Veenstra's earnestness is utterly charming, and although Waites' character, per the script, takes some time to blossom she is without doubt the most thrilling, poised Rosalind I have ever seen. Once she dons the doublet and hose she rules the stage, giving proof to director Attenborough's theory that Rosalind is a grand female role on a par with Hamlet. As Orlando's evil, moustachioed brother Oliver, Gregory Woodell cuts a fine figure as well, plotting his brother's demise in a hastily-arranged wrestling match that he hopes will end with Orlando's neck well broken. As Orlando's opponent Charles, Ian Bedford is truly intimidating, a guy who seems to have taken the night off from WWE to visit the theatre.

In a way it's hard to choose which performances to highlight here, but there is no mistaking the brilliance of Timothy D. Stickney, who in a welcome twist plays both the good Duke Senior and (thanks to a discreetly staged costume change) the evil Duke Frederick as well. His Frederick is positively ferocious, while his Senior gets in touch with his inner Nature Boy; in both roles Stickney's voice fills the Lansburgh in ways that few actors have managed over the years.

For sheer comic effect, the team of Happy Anderson and Stephen Pilkington are hard to beat as the shepherds Corin and Silvius. Anderson's gruff authority brings to mind an amiable Henry VIII (sans wives and axes) while Pilkington's love-struck boy is hilariously pathetic. Silvius pines away in vain for his true love, Phoebe, who is given a rowdy, delicious turn by Valeri Mudek; the scene where Rosalind confronts Phoebe and castigates her for rejecting Silvius is one of the most polished comic routines of the evening, and Mudek brings down the house with her misbegotten lust for the cross-dressing Rosalind.

Joining the good Duke and Rosalind in the forest is a solid cast of supporting players, including Jeff Brooks' Adam (the groundskeeper) and Andrew Weems' court fool, Touchstone. Fez-capped and trailing silk kerchiefs to accent his business suit, Touchstone manages to charm even the terminally melancholy Jaques, who is so busy proclaiming his world-weariness one wonders whether it's all an act. Derek Smith conceives of Jaques as a suave, impeccably-dressed poseur, which will no doubt please many who love the role; his recitation of the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech is beautifully delivered, but to me seemed too quiet and restrained, as if everyone was expected to know when it was coming and just listen; if it's a part of the plot, however, perhaps it might benefit from a more forceful delivery, since he is using the speech to persuade the ensemble (and perhaps himself) that life is a highly overrated experience, hardly worth the getting born.

Like Michael Kahn, Shakespeare Theatre Company's Artistic Director, Mr. Attenborough specializes in a deliberately-paced, lush Shakespeare that emphasizes beautiful visuals and takes its sweet time. This can be exquisite for some, but when the first act of a production occupies nearly two hours before intermission, it can be trying to even the hardiest of fans. I would urge those who nearly find themselves napping to get themselves a cup of coffee for the second act, because once the action shifts permanently to Arden the play and the performers really take off; the pace picks up noticeably, and the humor of the situation makes the final one-hour-plus worth the price of the whole evening.

Jonathan Fensom gives us a handsome, wood-toned set with raked stage and banks of stage-wide curtains that serve a variety of functions, some of them quite clever. His costumes are evocative of the dangerous between-the-wars period in Europe, and they balance the Roaring 20's devil-may-care with just a hint of the fascist menace in Duke Ferdinand's court. Robb Hunter, who choreographed the spectacular wrestling match that opens the play, deserves high commendation for one of the most carefully-wrought fight scenes you will find on the DC stage (or elsewhere, for that matter).

Robert Wierzel's delicate lighting design creates an appropriate mix of moods as well, but what is strange -and par for the course with productions of this type-is the insistence on wistful, melancholy music by Steve Brush and Thomas Newman. The atmosphere of gloom that pervades every scene and costume change seems completely out of sync with the absurdity of the play, and runs the risk of undermining its comic content. For decades, it has been fashionable to wring as much pathos as possible out of Shakespeare's romantic comedies (Sir Peter Hall's film version of Twelfth Night comes to mind). Count me as one audience member who fails to see what on earth pathos has to do with it, especially when it risks killing the comic spirit altogether.

Caveats and complaints aside, however, this As You Like It is well worth the viewing; it is a rare chance to catch Shakespeare as directed by a master who knows the script inside and out. The attention to detail and nuance here is wonderful to see, and even if I disagree with some of Attenborough's choices this is a vision of the Bard not to be missed.

Production Photo: Zoë Waites as Rosalind and Andrew Veenstra as Orlando in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of William Shakespeare's As You Like It, directed by Michael Attenborough. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Running Time: 3 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.

Performances are October 28-December 14 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets call 202-547-1122, or visit: www.ShakespeareTheatre.org

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From This Author Andrew White

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