Shakespeare scholars have long been divided over the value of As You Like It, whether it should be considered one of the Bard's foremost comedies or a minor work written simply to entertain a waiting public. The new production that opened Tuesday as part of BAM's second annual Bridge Project answers this choice indiscriminately in the affirmative: It's a rich and extremely funny play. As directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road), the pastoral comedy keeps a quick pace that rarely slows long enough to pull us out of the narrative—even at three and a quarter hours with intermission. There are unmistakable similarities to Twelfth Night, with its cross-dressing heroine and cross-class romances, and to A Midsummer Night's Dream, whose wilderness is markedly more enchanted than this Forest of Arden, but functions as an equally liberating foil to the social strictures and seething injustices of city and court. In its portrayal of seats of power as fundamentally corrupted places, this comedy also shares thematic elements with several of Shakespeare's most revered tragedies. Mendes' production plays on this contrast between borough and brush, gaining momentum and poise as it leads us further and further into the woods.
The relatively staid pace of the opening act is partly necessary for the sake of exposition, acquainting us with all the players' histories before sending them on their trajectories. Here Mendes, set designer Tom Piper, lighting designer Paul Pyant and costume designer Catherine Zuber establish the oppressive mood that reigns over Duke Frederick's (Michael Thomas) palace, represented as an imposing vertical wooden wall painted a dark gray that fills the entire proscenium. A few high windows and one solitary door evoke the architecture of a castle, and it's no wonder that our heroine Rosalind (Juliet Rylance) is ready to leave when her uncle banishes her to the same forest to which he’d already exiled her father, the previous Duke. Frederick and the members of his court dress and behave like sinister businessmen who could in fact be mobsters, echoing the mood of cool hostility that reverberates off the imposing palace wall. An upset in a wrestling match that the duke organizes precipitates the play's first of many instances of love at first sight between Rosalind and Orlando (Christian Camargo, seen recently as the army psychiatrist in The Hurt Locker), both of whom are banished more or less immediately thereafter.
The text, and this production, only find their pace once Rosalind, her best friend and Frederick's daughter Celia (the excellent Michelle Beck) and the clown Touchstone (a hilarious Thomas Sadoski) leave the palace and enter the Forest of Arden, where Orlando has also fled. As they do so an appropriately transformative set change takes place, with the over-bearing wall gliding back and up to reveal a luminous, snow-swept woodland set. When, in the three final acts, the snow is replaced by tall, gold-hued grasses, the pastoral, magical realist aesthetic reflects the play's fundamental shift in tone from a political drama to a romantic comedy. Rosalind, now handsomely disguised as a young man named Ganymede, takes charge, pursuing Orlando as best (s)he can and unwittingly earning the affections of Phoebe (Ashlie Atkinson), who is in turn all but blind to the affections of hapless Silvius (Aaron Krohn). Other couples begin to take shape as Touchstone and Celia also find love in the Forest Arden.
The woods' equivalent to the lords and duke of the palace is a constantly rotating set of poor country folk, exiled courtesans and romantic wanderers, the foremost of whom (here, at least) is the wonderful Stephen Dillane's Jacques—the play, ostensibly, is set in France. Dillane’s (John Adams, 44 Inch Chest) performance as what the program notes call "a melancholy gentleman" epitomizes the agility, precision and comfort that virtually all the players in this production display. Even in passages when the language is too quick or elaborate to be appreciated for anything more than its timbre and cadence, we are never left uncertain as to what's happening. Rylance's turn as Rosalind/Ganymede—undoubtedly one of Shakespeare's two or three greatest female character—is also exceptional in this regard, managing just the right balance of optimism, buoyancy and desperation to maneuver all the various characters into place for the absurdly happy ending. As both her father, the usurped Duke, and her uncle, the usurping Duke Frederick, Michael Thomas' two-faced performance—subdued though it may seem amidst the play's grand comedy and double entendre-filled farce—is masterfully crafted, juxtaposing a slimy irritability with organic warmth and generosity that have been worn away by years of nomadic life away from his daughter and palace.
It's this mixture of elaborate, stylized performances and stripped, realist acting that make Mendes' As You Like It seem at once very mindful of tradition and convention, yet also firmly contemporary in its postmodern fusion of aesthetics, mannerisms and cultural references–from the douchy, MBA-type suits worn by Frederick's henchmen to Dillane's rousing musical homage to a certain legendary American singer songwriter. Neither histrionic nor aggressively modernized, this uproarious and debonair production exemplifies contemporary Shakespeare at its best and just the way you like it.
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)