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The Classic Stage Company, E. 13th Street, Manhattan

As You Like It

Review by Deirdre Donovan

The Classic Stage Company inaugurates its 50th anniversary season with a jazzed-up Shakespeare comedy, helmed by CSC’s artistic director John Doyle.

As You Like It kicks off Classic Stage Company’s 50th anniversary season, with CSC’s artistic director John Doyle at the helm. The miniaturist Doyle, true to form, stages the Bard’s romantic comedy in a compact version that clocks in at a brisk 100 minutes with no intermission. It’s jazzy, merry, melancholy, and very, very American.

Doyle doesn’t skimp on the star-dust here. Among its ten-member cast are the legendary Ellen Burstyn (as a cross-gendered Jacques) and Broadway veterans Bob Stillman, Andre De Shields, and Cass Morgan. True, Hannah Cabe and Kyle Scatliffe, in the principal roles of Rosalind and Orlando, clearly wave the banner for youth in this production. But by looking at the entire company on stage, we clearly can see that many are well-past their salad days (more later, on this).

No need to retell Shakespeare’s story. It’s a classic boy-meets-girl tale, with a transvestite twist. Orlando and Rosalind fall in love at court, when Orlando triumphs over the champion fighter Charles in a wrestling match. Shortly after this contest, the new Duke banishes Rosalind from the court (for outshining his daughter Celia) and she sets out for the Forest of Arden, accompanied by her loyal friend Celia and the court fool Touchstone. There Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede) will meet up with Orlando again and tutor him in love. Of course, there’s much more involved than romantic love in Shakespeare’s story (think politics, power plays, gender identity, and sibling rivalry). But Rosalind and Orlando’s courtship is the lynchpin of the plot.

Forget about seeing a conventional Forest of Arden in this minimalist production. Doyle, who’s both director and set designer here, doesn’t lay on the traditional pastoral motifs with a realistic trowel. Instead, Doyle reimagines his “green world” with a semi-abstract look. On varying lengths of cords suspended from the flies, Doyle has designed a number of light-bulb structures, resembling larger-than-life acorns. In this play’s world, we don’t witness the love-sick Orlando impaling his amorous poems (to Rosalind) on simulated trees. Rather we see the lover take his knife in hand and symbolically carve his lines of poetry across the fluorescent surface of a fake acorn. True, this may puzzle those who have never seen a traditional As You Like It on stage. But it will delight those who like their Shakespeare done with ingenuity and post-modern flair.

The multi-award-winning composer Stephen Schwartz supplies the original music—and it literally jazzes-up the Bard’s romantic comedy. This As You Like It, not only has Shakespeare’s original language throughout, it has American jazz rhythms working in synergy with the dialogue and action. Depending on the scene, performers will punctuate the proceedings with riffs from a trumpet, a violin, a banjo, or a triangle. Most impressive by far, however, is Bob Stillman (Duke Frederick, Duke Senior) at a piano, who can tickle the ivories like nobody’s business, momentarily transforming the Forest of Arden into a kind of carnival space. Who said Shakespeare is stuffy?

The acting is mostly solid. Although I first thought Hannah Cabell was miscast as Rosalind, she ultimately won me over with her strong voice, physical agility, and smart interpretation of her psychologically-complex role. Playing opposite her, Kyle Scatliffe infused Orlando with the requisite determination, sensitivity, and manly pluck. Quincy Tyler Bernstine, as Celia/Aliena, is spot-on as Rosalind’s petticoated side-kick. Ellen Burstyn, as the sophisticated Jacques, lacks the sharp-tongued bite of other Jacques I have seen over the years. But when delivering the Seven Ages of Man speech, Burstyn breathed genuine pathos into it, particularly the last section on “second childishness” that nihilistically ends "sans everything.” Andre De Shields and Cass Morgan infuse Rabelaisian humor into their parts as Touchstone and Audrey. De Shields and Morgan (who also plays Old Anna) are a nonconventional choice for these lovers, who are usually played by actors decades younger. But these seasoned thespians pull it off with some scenery-chewing and a last-chance-at-love attitude.

Although this streamlined production with its many doubling of parts can get a tad confusing at times, by the time the Epilogue arrives, there’s no doubt that Rosalind and Orlando—along with Touchstone and Audrey, Silvius and Phoebe, and Celia and Oliver--are happily paired off and ready to make a go of marriage.

Doyle’s new interpretation of As You Like It may not be for the ages, but it sure is right for the here-and-now. With its cast being made-up of performers of all ages, it sends out the clear message that love belongs, not only to the young, but to everybody who’s young-at-heart.

Through October 22nd.

At Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, Manhattan.

For more information, phone (212) 677.4210

or visit www.classicstage.org.

Running time:  100 minutes with no intermission.


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