As You Like It (CSC)
John Doyle’s updated, cut-down version of the popular Shakespeare comedy is ultimately quite charming with a delicious score by Stephen Schwartz.
Reduced to a cast of ten (plus audience participation), the revival includes such Broadway veterans as Ellen Burstyn, André De Shields, Cass Morgan and Bob Stillman, as well as such rising stars as Noah Brody, co-artistic director of Fiasco Theater who will stage CSC’s next production of Twelfth Night, another Shakespeare comedy, with Ben Steinfeld.
Known as the Shakespeare play with the most song lyrics, the production also includes a deliciously bouncy new score by Stephen Schwartz in different musical styles from the 1920’s – 1950’s, including setting to music some of Orlando’s mash notes to Rosalind which are usually spoken in verse. The numbers are mostly reassigned to the musical theater veterans like De Shields and Stillman who also plays an onstage upright piano, along with Leenya Rideout on violin and double bass, and other members of the cast occasionally joining in on guitar and triangle. All of this adds to the festive, light-hearted atmosphere. Originally announced as a Jazz Age interpretation, that concept seems to have gone by the wayside.
Doyle is famed for his minimalist productions and this proves to be no exception. In his own scenic design, the audience sits around the reconfigured CSC Theater on three sides of an empty open space with a wooden parquet floor except for the piano and a steamer trunk which is used as a prop in various ways. Mike Baldassari’s lighting design adds magic: pendant acorn-shaped globes hanging from the ceiling at different heights turn blue or green for scenic effects, but when court jester Touchstone points at them with his multicolored umbrella they morph into a rainbow of lights. The actors initially get Ann Hould-Ward’s low-rent costumes from the trunk and then crowd around Burstyn who has a book with the text open on her lap so that the opening lines are presented as a reading. This framing device doesn’t work so well but is soon dropped.
Dressed in pants, a tailored jacket and a man’s tie, Burstyn plays an androgynous Jacques, the melancholy lord, usually played by a man, though it doesn’t change much when one realizes the device. Stillman, Brody, Morgan and David Samuel play two characters each, one at Duke Frederick’s court and another in the Forest of Arden. Old Adam, faithful servant to Orlando, has become Old Anna and Amiens, Duke Senior’s jester has been dropped along with Le Beau, a courtier, William, a country man, and Sir Oliver Martext, the curate. Except that one at first wonders where they are if one knows the play, their absence makes relatively little difference.
The much truncated plot is still in evidence: Duke Frederick has usurped his brother’s court but has allowed his niece Rosalind to remain as a companion to his daughter Celia. When he turns against her and orders her gone, she dresses as a man taking the name of “Ganymede,” and Celia (now “Aliena”) flee to join her father, Duke Senior, in the Forest of Arden. So too does Orlando, younger son of Sir Rowland de Boys, who wins a wrestling match and infuriates Frederick who did not like his father, and is banished from the kingdom. However, Rosalind and Orlando have met at the match and fallen in love.
Meeting Orlando again in the forest, the disguised Ganymede lets him woo her in the name of his beloved, while she picks up a rustic suitor Phoebe who has her own lover Silvius. Orlando’s cruel brother Oliver is exiled by the duke and meets and falls instantly in love with Celia in Arden. As in all traditional comedy, all’s well that ends well as the play concludes with multiple weddings, as well as Duke Senior restored to his rightful place.
At the performance under review, Burstyn as Jacques delivered the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech with little voice power, but made all of her other lines land with a zing. De Shields as the jester Touchstone seems to revel in his antics, while Cass Morgan (with a mop style hairdo) as an older country Audrey than usual delights in her romance with him. Stillman mainly sits behind the piano giving the show the air of a jazz club but is also quite different as the two dukes, one out of control, the other a wry philosopher.
The young lovers bring a joie de vivre and effervescence to their roles as they cavort in a forest only they could see. Hannah Cabell is a charming, take-charge Rosalind, while Quincy Tyler Bernstine is a feisty Celia, making this usually supporting role have more weight. Kyle Scatliffe’s callow young Orlando is a breath of fresh air as the irrepressibly lovesick swain, while Rideout’s Phoebe captures the rustic ways of country people. Brody, who has usually played the leading roles in the Fiasco Shakespeare productions, makes his Oliver and Corin entirely different. Samuel gives able support as both the compassionate and humble wrestler Charles and the virile, passionate lover Silvius.
While the early parts of the play seem a bit rushed from all the cuts, once the play moves to the Forest of Arden it settlesdown into a stable comic rhythm. Performed without an intermission, John Doyle’s production moves swiftly and ends on a happy, upbeat note. This pared-down Shakespeare seems to be the current new trend, not to all minds, but offering pleasures of its own. The Stephen Schwartz song settings turn this into almost a full-fledged musical comedy.
As You Like It (through October 22, 2017)
CSC & Bay Street Theater
Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-677-4210 or visit http://www.classicstage.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission
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