Theater review: ‘As You Like It’ sees red

Jake Street strangles Tony St. Clair as David Heath seeks to intervene./Photo: David Kinder

We have come to expect that our theater will reflect our times, one way or another. These are angry times in America, so an angry “As You Like It,” Shakespeare’s comic investigation of love, shouldn’t surprise us.

That’s what the Portland Shakespeare Project, under the direction of Michael Mendelson has given us. Well, among other things, because it’s also delivered a well-spoken, fully committed,  swiftly moving “As You Like It,” too.

Are we angrier now than when Paddy Chayefsky’s prescient satire “Network” declared, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” way back in 1976? Not that I know how to measure societal anger, exactly, but I‘d have to say we are. By a lot. Our sense of fairness has turned into an obsession with power; our sense of justice has transformed into a desire for revenge; and love has become a weakness, a matter for saps.  Rightly, we are angry about it all, and that anger further corrodes fairness, justice and love. Don’t you just love vicious circles?

I’ve seen a few productions of “As You Like It,” and I’ve never seen one quite like this. Usually, I leave thinking they have emphasized the “spunky” part of Rosalind, among Shakespeare’s greatest heroines (with Juliet, Viola, Cleopatra and Imogen), at the expense of her wisdom and depth of feeling. And sometimes, I think they’ve taken the comedy in the forest all the way to “Hee Haw,” which was a cornpone variety show back on the cusp of the ‘70s. But anger? Not so much.

We get a dose of it right at the beginning, when Orlando (Jake Street), the wronged younger brother, gets a good solid choke hold on his brother Oliver (Tony St. Clair), and muscles and veins start popping. And that carries over to the wrestling match that Oliver has fixed to eliminate Orlando: We’d call it a cage match to the death. This isn’t comic violence, not at all.

The villains, Oliver and the usurping Duke Frederick (Pierre Brulatour), are angry, of course. But so is the jester, Touchstone (Darius Pierce), whose dry wit blows up into a Saharan windstorm that threatens to take the flesh off the bones of a rival in love. And even Rosalind (Cristi Miles), whose doubts about and yearning for Orlando leads to temporary hysteria (as love often will), pushes into the Red Zone, projecting a bitterness in the process. And she takes her playacting with the spatting couple Silvius (Andy Lee-Hillstrom) and Phoebe (Dana Millican) into real aggravation.

Ouch. Those are three primary characters — Rosalind, Oliver and Touchstone — and their collective anger changes the ecology of the production. So, Jacques, the melancholic philosopher, has a little snarl to go with her brooding (Jacquez, usually a man’s role, is played by Jill Westerby here), and the irony of Rosalind’s dear cousin Celia (Melissa Whitney) sounds harder-edged than it ordinarily would.

Instead of a meditation on various sorts of love, which  ultimately  involves a certain sacrifice of self, this “As You Like It” moves love to the side and focuses on the dissonance around it, the selves competing with each other.

In a gentler time, more concerned with the textures of love, this would be unthinkable. In my preparation for this production, I stumbled upon a collection of letters by Helena Faucit, one of the great British stage actors of the 19th century. “On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters” is a delight, a close reading of  parts that made Faucit famous, including Rosalind. Although the language is from another era, her observations are close to the heart of her acting,  at least as close as the reflections of any actor I’ve ever read. And her take on Rosalind, which runs dozens of pages, is instructive.

Here’s part of what she says about the most famous scene in the play, when Rosalind, disguised as a boy, meets Orlando in the forest of Arden and understands, from the love poems to her he has left on the trees and from overhearing him, that he loves her as much as she loves him. It’s a little long, but I think Faucit’s description of her inner state is worth reading:

“The situation, in its very strangeness, was so delightful to my imagination, that from the moment when I took the assurance from Orlando’s words to Jaques, that his love was as absolute as woman could desire, I seemed to lose myself in a sense of exquisite enjoyment. A thrill passed through me; I felt my pulse beat quicker; my very feet seemed to dance under me. … Speak to Orlando she must at any hazard. But oh, the joy of getting him to pour out all his heart, without knowing that it was his “very Rosalind” to whom he talked, of proving if he were indeed worthy of her love, and testing, at the same time, the depth and sincerity of her own devotion! The device to which she resorted seemed to suggest itself irresistibly; and, armed with Shakespeare’s words, it was an intense pleasure to try to give expression to the archness, the wit, the quick ready intellect, the ebullient fancy, with the tenderness underlying all, which gave to this scene its transcendent charm.”

The “tenderness underlying all” — the language of love in our time is relatively impoverished compared to the language of Faucit’s. Sure, Faucit saw the need to test love, but I’m not sure she saw it as a threat to the self.

I’m not being prescriptive here. I think a 2011 version of “As You Like It” risks seeming hopelessly archaic if its Rosalind tracks along with Faucit’s. The Portland Shakespeare Project’s production is true to its time. It does the play the honor of treating it as a living document, not a museum piece. It chooses not to impose a gauzy scrim between us and Arden wood, where cute lovers and cut-up rustics act the fool in harmless ways.

That takes attention and hard work, and the cast, top to bottom, attacks the details with verve. The major roles, occupied by Miles, Street, Pierce, Whitney and Westerby, are beautifully spoken at times and alive second by second, provocative second by second. They never surrender to the conventions of the play. And the supporting cast follows suit — David Bodin’s Corin, for example.  The direction of the production makes Phoebe much more difficult to play — she can’t do a Daisy Mae – and Millican makes sense of her, at least until the end, when Shakespeare wraps things up with swoop.  Director Mendelson keeps the pace up by asking the actors to enter the stage a few beats before they actually should enter, a device common enough in choreography but rarer in theater.  Good idea!

As I left the theater, my friend suggested that the play itself was deficient, that it was “nice” enough, he supposed, but that nothing profound was at stake.  I didn’t say anything intelligible in reply, but now I’d offer that in “As You Like It,” love itself is at stake. I want the audience to clap if it still believes in love. I want the actors to act as though love is still a possibility. I want Rosalind to discover herself in love, become wiser and wittier in love than out, to nourish those she loves and in turn find nourishment from them.

But these are angry times. We turn our anger on ourselves. We lose the thread. It’s hardly as we like it — and that only makes us angrier.

NOTES

Need a little “As You Like It” plot refresher? It’s a story simply told. Rosalind is the daughter of the banished Duke, who has fled to the Forest of Arden, banished by his brother Frederick. When Frederick banishes Rosalind, too, she and her friend and cousin Celia (Frederick’s daughter) head for Arden, too, along with the jester Touchstone. But not before Rosalind and Orlando  fall in love at first sight! Orlando has a problem, too, a brother (Oliver) who has denied him his inheritance and seeks to eliminate him entirely, and he slips away to Arden, too.  In Arden, Rosalind, disguised as a boy, runs into the love-addled Orlando, and in that guise puts him to the test. Meanwhile, other love affairs entwine like so many vines in the forest. It’s going to take quite a magician to figure it all out, but maybe, just maybe, Rosalind has the right wand to make it work.

4 Responses.

  1. Marty Hughley says:

    Mr. Johnson, I bow to thee. Nice work, sir.

  2. Steve says:

    But…but…maybe….maybe you should just DO THE PLAY?

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Steve, Well, since we don’t really know how to do the play as it was originally done, just about everyone is winging it all the time, coloring it as they, uh, like it. Which is fine by me, especially if they speak it well and the story’s clear, which it is in this case. But it does raise… questions.

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