As You Like It by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tony Simotes
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Strong and lusty. . .frosty but kindly."
Shakespeare’s English, especially in his brittle and fast-paced comedies, can be somewhat akin to a foreign language. Set in France and in a pastoral forest, "As You Like It" a bit more romantic than brittle, might well be in an exotic tongue; it is certainly involved with an erotic one. At Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA this summer there is a keynote production of this play with a cast that truly gets the director’s concepts, the playwright’s intent and the audiences’ need. It’s wrapped up in a package that delivers on its promises; as its gilt foil paper and its bright silk ribbons are stripped away the present inside becomes all the more precious.
Set in the 1920s, with World War I just a few years gone, the battles between brothers still rage. Though there is frivolity and partying going on at court, all is not well. One Duke has usurped another banishing the rightful, lawful man from his Paris home. In another house of nobility, a younger brother has been raised among the farmhands while his elder has enjoyed all that money and position can offer. Naturally the older man, Oliver, resents his baby sibling, Orlando, and sets out to destroy him once and for all. Since this is a comedy the dark setups for these folks are soon being blown downhill by the gusts of lusty windbags and by the end of the three hour evening, all is right with the world once again. People are restored to their natural places. Lovers are united in matrimony. Fools are offered succor. Happy ending.
This information shouldn’t spoil a moment of the fun for anyone, even those who know nothing about the play. Just a bit more information and then, you’re on your own: people masquerade in this play for all sorts of reasons and one character has been physically transformed into a transgendered state. The reasons behind this are never clear except that pessimism in our eyes may well sit better in the semi-political position of a woman in a man’s apparel.
Tony Roach plays the romantic lead in this show. His Orlando is youthful, handsome, virile, viable. His manly beauty is unsurpassed on this show’s stage even though his brother Oliver is played handsomely by Josh Aaron McCabe. Both men handle their complicated lines and their difficult relationship beautifully.
The woman in the case, Rosalind, is played with verve, vigor and a vivacious quality by Merritt Janson who really makes this role her own personal creation. She is lovely to watch as a woman, charming to observe when disguised as a man. She handles the language as though she was born talking this way. There is never an unsure moment in her performance.
Her equals are two: Jonathan Epstein as Touchstone and Tod Randolph as Jaques, or Madame Jaques...it’s never truly made clear. Both Shakespeare & Company veterans perform with surety and style, their steps certain and their dialects perfected. We never miss a single word or a single meaning in their mouths. If all the world could be as clear as these two manage to be, in an ancient language, there would no longer be politics as we know it.
Ryan Winkles is a much more charming than usual Silvius as he pursues the elusive Phebe, played by a slyly flirtatious, yet downright determined Dana Harrison. Malcolm Ingram is a hilariously fragile Adam, servant to Orlando, who manages to fall into all sorts of states and arms in the course of the evening. Jonathan Croy as the shepherd Corin gives a tenderly controlled performance and Kelley Curran is a perfectly lovely Celia, cousin to Rosalind.
Johnny Lee Davenport does double duty as both of the brothers Duke. He is mean and hard as Celia’s father and charmingly observant and almost obsequious as Rosalind’s long-lost dad. A surprise is the performance of Jennie M. Jadow as the shepherdess Audrey. In the role she manages every kind of physical pratfall and manipulation and in the "Lover and His Lass" number proves herself as artful a "scat" artist as Ella Fitzgerald.
As part of this show’s update concept there are new musical settings for Shakespeare’s song lyrics composed by Alexander Sovronsky. He has managed, with the exception of the above mentioned song, to provide plenty of 1920's sounding music. For this number he jumps twenty years or more into the future with a wonderful jazz/scat setting that keeps Jadow, Epstein and three other cast members - Sam Parrott, Wolfe Colman and Ross Bennett Hurwitz - hopping and lindy-hopping with amazing clarity.
Simotes knows how to keep the body of a show up in the air. His fight choreography and his love scenes are equally energetic in their own ways. His use of the long thrust stage and the second level crossover are mutually engaging. The set by Sandra Goldmark is reminiscent of the Belgian Opera production of "The Coronation of Poppeia" which played at U-Mass Amherst several years ago, the principal set pieces in both shows being miniatures of major buildings in the cities in which the shows are set. It worked very well here.
Arthur Oliver’s costumes smack periods over their heads and combine three hundred years of styles into one cohesive costume rhetoric. Women’s dresses in the city are smack-dab in the 1920's, Charleston-dancing era. Everyone else is wearing what best suits them and their position in life. As lit by Les Dickert all of this is lovely to look at.
As You Like It was the first Shakespeare show I knew, performed by my fifth grade class at the Carmen Road School in Massapequa, New York. The Shakespeare & Company production available to everyone now is just as good, probably better and much more fun to watch and to want to be in. I saw the next to last preview and it was so good that I can’t imagine what could be altered or improved. Luckily the company has all summer to keep us laughing.
Tony Roach and Merritt Janson; photo: Kevin Sprague
Tony Roach as Orlando; photo: Kevin Sprague
Tod Randolph as Jaques; photo: Kevin Sprague
As You Like It plays in the Founders Theatre at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, MA through September 4. For scheduled, information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353.