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February 9, 2006

Stage Matters

As I didn't like it


Cast photoIn Truth and the Comedic Art, Michael Gelven calls As You Like It "one of the rarest few of the greatest comedies ever written." A Midsummer Night's Dream is funnier, he believes, and Much Ado About Nothing is wittier. But As You Like It "seems to fuse love with comedy almost to perfection." That's how I feel about it. It's my favorite of the Bard's comedies.

Shakespeare wrote for a particular group of actors and the audience of the time. Romances were in style and the cross-town rivals of Shakespeare's company had a recent success with a Robin Hood play. So, for As You Like It, he adapted a popular romance and created a band of exiles in the Forest of Arden, infusing the conventional story with a wide and wonderful humanity.

This is one of Shakespeare's most performed plays. Rosalind, the woman who pretends to be a man, who then pretends to be a woman so that Orlando (the man she loves) can practice wooing the woman she actually is by pretending he is she, is perhaps the greatest woman's part in the comedies. Famous actors have therefore pined to play her, from Dame Edith Evans to Katharine Hepburn, Maggie Smith and Gwyneth Paltrow, with Vanessa Redgrave's 1961 Royal Shakespeare Company performance among the most lauded.

It's been done for television several times, with the 1978 BBC version of the full play (starring Helen Mirren) available on DVD. A 1936 movie abridgement can be found on video, notable for a young and dazzling Lawrence Olivier as Orlando, and some creative film editing by the young David Lean. Elizabeth Bergner, an accomplished Central European actress, plays a spirited Rosalind, though her accent sounds disconcertingly like Bela Lugosi.

Later this year, As You Like It will get the Kenneth Branagh film treatment, starring two young actors with strong theater credentials who are becoming movie stars: Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind and Adrian Lester as Orlando.

This is a rich and accessible history for those who make and those who go to new productions. Every local company that does a well-known play has to compete to some degree with the best stage productions, as well as existing films and videos. It's unfair, but a reality, that even when the players aren't paid, they are often asking audiences to spend their money as well as several hours of their lives. Sometimes, as in the case of North Coast Rep's last production, Once Upon A Mattress, they create something that's better than the pros. Mostly they offer other virtues, the most basic of which is the privilege of seeing a good or a great play up close, done competently, with at least a few intriguing or pleasingly surprising elements.

This, in my view, is unfortunately not the case with NCRT's current production of As You Like It. Some directors have played it strictly for laughs, even as farce, which seems to be the intended direction of this attempt. Even when done reasonably well, this approach tramples on the play's greatest virtues. As Michael Gelven observes (and I heartily agree), the central characteristic of this play and its characters is grace.

But even on its own terms, I didn't find this production anywhere near a minimal standard of watchability. On a nearly bare stage, it is set in a confused and unappealing version of the 1960s, with Beatles songs replacing those in the text, inflicting only slightly less damage on the Beatles than on Shakespeare. The acting style is apparently meant to be broadly funny, somewhere between sitcom and camp. It doesn't work, as the lack of laughter from Friday's opening night audience made terribly clear.

The only Shakespearian element of the acting is from Hamlet's advice to the players on what not to do -- mug the words and saw the air too much with the hands. Those who didn't mumble went to elaborate lengths to act out their lines with stock gestures and motiveless moves that were likely antique in Shakespeare's day. At times it all came across as laboriously condescending, both to the play and to the audience. The blocking was awkward, the costumes seemed deliberately ugly (likely somebody's idea of a hoot) and the almost non-existent set was perfunctory at best.

I wish there was an element of the production I could single out for praise, apart from the assumed sincere effort. I hold out for you the possibility that everything changed for the better in the second half, for I was long gone by then. It's especially unfortunate, if my view has merit, because this comedy should have special appeal to Humboldt, particularly in the multiple contrasts of country and city. Think of it set in the Forest of Arcata. And be grateful that your happy memories (if such they be) of "The Long and Winding Road" remain intact.


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