Peter Marks reviews 'As You Like It' by Shakespeare Theatre Company

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Imagine little Willie Shakespeare in the balcony of the Roxy or the Bijou, clutching a Cracker Jack box and staring thunderstruck at cowboys and comics and chorus girls flickering on the screen, and you get an inkling of the sensation director Maria Aitken is after in the lavish valentine to Hollywood she stages for Shakespeare Theatre Company.

The play is called "As You Like It," though the resemblance to Shakespeare slowly dissolves as the evening unfolds -- especially in terms of the chest-swelling spell that can be cast by the best productions of this elegant pastoral comedy. Here, you come to feel as if the play were a mere podium on which the director chose to rest a thesis: that motion pictures dominate our dreams and fantasies, the way theater and other older art forms once might have. But Aitken may as well have manipulated any work in the dramatic library to make this point.

What's produced in her all-over-the-place treatment in Sidney Harman Hall is a breathless jumble of intriguing ideas and confusing conceits. One minute, you're thinking, "Ahh!" and the next, "Huh?" On the clever side is the parodying use of cinematic devices, as when Orlando (John Behlmann) and the disguised Rosalind (Francesca Faridany) hop in a vintage car, with grainy footage of the desert landscape passing on a little screen behind them. Less satisfying are the overabundant rips in the narrative fabric of the play, the disorienting transitions in which characters leave the geographical and chronological terrain of "As You Like It" and land in disparate epochs of American history, represented by familiar movie genres.

It's a big, nervy and impressive-looking enterprise, worthy of the grand scale of the Harman. In the end, though, you yearn for more discipline to be imposed on the director's exuberant design, some stronger editing that might have prevented Shakespeare's splendid characters from drowning in the concept. Although the visual wit is apparent, it's too much in service of a work that might be titled "As She Likes It."

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The inspiration for Aitken's approach seems rooted in the comedy's most celebrated speech, in which the cynical wanderer Jaques (Andrew Long) informs the exiles in the forest of Arden that "all the world's a stage" and, more to the point, "all the men and women merely players." As the production never wants you to forget this observation, it takes place on a modern soundstage, with omnipresent movie lights and a disembodied voice shouting "Action!" and "Cut!"

An inspirational template could also have been provided by "That's Entertainment," the 1974 movie tribute to MGM that took its name from an Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz song of the same title, a number whose lyrics -- "The world is a stage, the stage is a world of entertainment" -- play off Jaques's sentiment.

The Dublin-born Aitken clearly has a thing for film iconography, as she demonstrated in her current New York success, a parody of the Hitchcock thriller "The 39 Steps," resourcefully conjured by four actors. She has widened the lens considerably on this occasion, and the effort begins promisingly: This "As You Like It" opens with a silent-movie back story of the banishment of Rosalind's noble father, a reenactment that haunts Rosalind's sleep.

The black-and-white motif -- one of the many striking elements in Derek McLane's set design and Martin Pakledinaz's ceaseless cavalcade of costumes -- is continued in the play's early scenes, which hew most closely to Shakespeare's story of exile, hidden identity and the permutations of love to be explored in the natural world.

Rather than resplendent Arden, however, a forest somewhere in France or perhaps England, the denizens of "As You Like It" escape to the New World. The trip is accomplished not only via boat but also time travel, for the production leaps incessantly forward, from a movie scene in New Amsterdam in 1670, to one set at Valley Forge in 1775, to a Civil War-racked South in 1865, to the Wild West in 1885, to an urbane nightclub in 1933. Jeff Sugg provides mural-size projections for each sequence, and a warmly melodic musical pastiche is added for each era by the musical-theater composer Michael John LaChiusa.

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Although an audience is kept aware that we're viewing the action through a modern filter, the actors switch accents and clothing so frequently that we lose the thread of the play. "As You Like It" may qualify as a popular offering, something of a chestnut in the canon. Still, most theatergoers haven't metabolized it quite the way they have "Romeo and Juliet." So as Floyd King's Touchstone, the play's clownish king of the rapid riposte, has to transform himself from "Gone With the Wind"-style Southern gentleman to embodiments of some very famous comic actors, the character's voice grows ever fainter. (At one point, King throws up his hands in exasperation; all one can say is, Touchstone, we feel your pain.)

Faridany and Miriam Silverman, playing Rosalind's faithful cousin Celia, face the toughest challenge, as their close kinship has to be sustained through all the rigmarole. Both give appealing performances, even if you're never permitted to care much what happens to them. (The expected emotional payoff of Rosalind's masquerade as a man is nil.) The athletic Behlmann radiates charm as Orlando, as well as a gift for slapstick; Long and Aubrey Deeker, as the shepherd Silvius, also inject some needed comic energy.

For all the liberties Aitken takes on this untamed, idiosyncratic night, you can't accuse her of not providing enough in the way of distraction. In fact, the most fun you might have with this "As You Like It" is arguing about it afterward.

As You Like It

by William Shakespeare. Directed by Maria Aitken. Lighting, Japhy Weideman; sound, Martin Desjardins; music director, Barbara Irvine; dance choreography, Daniel Pelzig; voice and dialects, Gary Logan; fight choreography, Brad Waller. With Mark Capri, Todd Scofield, Elliot Dash, Barnaby Carpenter, Ted van Griethuysen, Anjali Bhimani, Raphael Nash Thompson, James Konicek, Beth Glover. About 2 hours 50 minutes. Through Dec. 20 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Visit http://www.shakespearetheatre.orgor call 202-547-1122.

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