January 25, 2011

As You Like It falls short of the Bard's expectations

In nearly everything Shakespeare wrote, one perceives in some measure an underlying cynicism with regard to the permanence and trustworthiness of human love and friendship. In tragedy, such a theme is to be expected, and indeed, in some of the Bard’s most celebrated works—Othello and King Lear come to mind—the consequences of human bonds, too soon questioned, are brought into stark relief at the play’s end by the large pile of bodies left on the stage. There’s no body-counting necessary in As You Like It, a generally bright, jolly, spirited comedy of great wit, now playing at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater. Yet perhaps nowhere is this theme of the bankruptcy of even our most intimate social bonds more apparent.

The most famous song of the play, set to music by Jenny Giering, “Blow Blow thou winter wind / Thou art not so unkind / As man’s ingratitude," also contains the line, “Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.” This line aptly describes the theme of the play. A usurping Duke has banished his brother from the Kingdom Before long, his niece Rosalind and her amorous pursuer, Orlando, are likewise banished.

Deep in the forest of Arden, by a strange concatenation of events, lovers become reconciled, filial bonds are restored, and we leave the play with perhaps a bit of faith in the goodness that can come from human society.

This play, therefore, requires the sort of keen direction that fully takes into account the thematic importance of every aspect of the production. It would be a shame for the viewer to laugh a good deal in the theater, but not feel the resonance of the Bard’s message. I am afraid, however, that this may too often have been the case here, in what amounts to an extremely underwhelming production of As You Like It, directed by Gary Griffin, Associate Artistic Director at Chicago Shakespeare.

The action centers around three principle characters of the play: Rosalind, Orlando, and Jaques—the sort of fool of the exiled Duke’s party—portrayed by Kate Fry, Matt Schwader, and Ross Lehman, respectively. And it is one of the great flaws of this production that none of them possess the necessary poise to carry the show. Of the three, Fry is clearly the best, and, paradoxically, she is much more successful as a man than as a woman. Schwader often appears not to interpret his lines correctly; a simple statement of fact, such as in Scene I, directed to Orlando’s elder brother, “I have as much of my father in me as you,” though admittedly said as part of a heated interchange, becomes an outlandish jab at his brother's dignity.

Really, it is Oliver’s impassioned cruelty that is supposed to contrast with the cool sensiblity of Orlando’s reply; it is thus that we are supposed to sympathize with his cause. Instead the picture we are given of Orlando is one of an everyday, rather unsympathetic young paramour. Ross Lehman’s Jaques is either misdirected, misinterpreted, or both. The play’s most famous speech, “All the World’s a Stage,” is given as if we had been invited to “open-mic” evening at a local comedy club; we lose all the pathos of a speech that is a charming commentary on the human condition.

Considerably more satisfying is Phillip James Brannon as the play’s other fool, the court jester Touchstone. However, even he, like nearly everyone in this production, has a tendency to swallow the last few words of every speech, perhaps in too much of a rush. Chaon Cross’s Celia, I should add, is simply very good, without qualification.

At times it seems as if Gary Griffin just did not think things through. The costumes are something out of the English Regency. The accents are casual and American, and the music—it is worth pointing out that, with the possible exception of Twelfth Night, no other Shakespeare play is so well-known for its songs—unabashedly takes notes from modern pop. We observe Rosalind, seated very erect at the piano, indulging her hobby as though still in Jane Austen’s England, but the music that comes out is mawkishly sweet, stock, modern craftsmanship of the lowest order. And there seems to be no reason for this mismatched combination of styles, or the lack of a unifying aesthetic.

I confess, it is difficult for me to find one single reason why Griffin’s As You Like It left me with such a feeling of dissatisfaction. The production certainly has plenty of life, and it is not over-directed per se (and I have seen plenty of overdone productions Shakespeare’s of comedies). The closest I could come would be to say it is sometimes lacking in that all too important ingredient of artistic creation: good taste.