The amorous tussle that is “As You Like It” never comes more vigorously to life in the Lansburgh Theatre than when two guys strip off their shirts and go at it on the mat.
It’s the wrestling match at the top of the show of which I speak, executed by Ian Bedford and Andrew Veenstra and staged by fight director Robb Hunter with an electric vim that places in serious doubt how Veenstra, as the play’s romantic hero Orlando, might extricate himself from this well-choreographed entanglement.
Rarely does an “As You Like It” devote this much creative tension to the athletic battle — devotion being the pivotal dimension of love spotlighted in director Michael Attenborough’s spare-to-the-point-of-drab staging. Never again in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s three-hour production, in fact, does the action of the play feel so completely engaged.
Granted, Shakespeare’s pastoral contemplation of affection, a sylvan gavotte in which not one, not two, not three, but four sets of temperamentally diverse lovers find one another, posits courtship as a whole lot of talky mind games. And no one plays these games with more intensity than Rosalind, the spiky young woman of diminished means exiled to the forest of Arden, where in male disguise she tests the constancy of her beloved Orlando.
English actress Zoe Waites is Shakespeare’s comic heroine on this occasion, and while her Rosalind lacks a softness that might more fully endear her to us, her severity makes believable both the stolid front she adopts and Rosalind’s ineffable ambivalence, her delaying of the consummation that the watchful Hymen (Te’La Curtis Lee), goddess of marriage, gently guides her toward. As the object of her desire, Veenstra’s Orlando is an excellent foil, earthy and ardent and as uncomplicated as Rosalind seems deep and troubled.
With these and a couple of other textured portrayals — the best being Derek Smith’s neurotic, nihilistic poet of a Jaques, deliverer of the Seven Ages of Man speech — this “As You Like It” has illuminating interludes of lyricism. But it’s a resistible evening overall, one that often feels confoundingly sluggish. There’s a dolefulness in “As You Like It” that Attenborough, son of the late actor and film director Richard Attenborough, taps into at times, with resonant effect. The flip side is that a surfeit of this mutes the play’s contentiousness and dulls its playfulness to a debilitating measure.
Perhaps it is the production’s perversely dreary physical world that amplifies the leaden quality. A Shakespearean forest doesn’t have to be magical, but, really! The dung-colored walls of Jonathan Fensom’s minimal set, adorned by curtains stained with splotches of abstract flora, looks less like a location for romance than interrogation. With the exception of the dreamily voluminous ball gowns worn in an early scene by Waites and Adina Verson, as Rosalind’s stalwart sidekick Celia, Fensom’s modern costumes — all business or farmhand attire — are similarly lacking in flavor. (The grim songs and lugubrious transition music, by Steve Brush and Thomas Newman, push the proceedings further into a desultory emotional key.)
Even with these deficits, this latest “As You Like It” is a step up from the company’s previous staging of the play in 2009, a time- and globe-hopping version set on a Hollywood soundstage that was so overthought that it trespassed into incoherence. (Its director, Maria Aitken, redeemed herself with her expert “Private Lives” in the Lansburgh this past June.) This time, some of the supporting performances manage to amp up the warmth; Stephen Pilkington, in particular, infuses the bumpkin Silvius, hopelessly in love with unfeeling Phoebe (Valeri Mudek), with a sweetly innocent, sad-sack appeal, and Timothy D. Stickney capably pulls off the role-doubling of the nasty and benevolent sibling dukes, the usurping one who banishes his rivals and the victimized one — Rosalind’s father — who rallies the other exiles in the woods.
As Touchstone, Andrew Weems fights the story’s wiseacre (and always difficult) clown character to a draw, while Jeff Brooks brings an enjoyable brio to his turn as Adam, the codger who serves Orlando (and in this version — unlike most others — doesn’t die).
The Arden of “As You Like It” is a social leveler, a healing place where city and country folk, high born and low, freely mix, where old identities are submerged, new ones are forged and unlikely couples fall in love, or into something close to it. The contours of the bucolic meeting ground conjured on this erratic occasion, however, ultimately seem too flat.
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Attenborough. Lighting, Robert Wierzel; sound and original music, Steve Brush; composer, Thomas Newman; choreography, Karma Camp. With Jeff Brooks, Gregory Wooddell, Matthew Schleigh, Theodore M. Snead, Joel David Santner, Todd Scofield, Happy Anderson, Tara Giordano, Luis Alberto Gonzalez. About 3 hours. Tickets: $20-$110. Through Dec. 14 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.