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If a production falls flat in a forest, does anyone hear it?
The question springs to mind while watching John Doyle’s As You Like It, set mostly in the Forest of Arden, at off-Broadway’s Classic Stage Company. I say Doyle’s As You Like It, because what’s onstage is far more his vision than Shakespeare’s. But that’s par for the course for this British director, who assumed artistic leadership of CSC this season, and whose maddeningly inconsistent work ranges from magical to self-indulgent.
The latter proves mainly true of this production previously seen at Long Island’s Bay Street Theater (its charms might have been more apparent in the bucolic Hamptons). As is typical with Doyle, this is high-concept Shakespeare, which in this case means very little of it. The play has been chopped down to an intermissionless 105 minutes, including musical interludes, so brushing up on the plot beforehand might be advisable. It’s also described as being set in the Jazz Age, although how the lack of scenery and mélange of costume styles, ranging from formalwear to overalls, is meant to suggest the period is anyone’s guess. But it does allow Ellen Burstyn to rock a fedora.
Speaking of Burstyn, she’s playing the melancholy philosopher Jaques. That’s only fair, considering that the Bard’s plays were performed exclusively by men when they were first produced. The opportunity to see the Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress in this intimate setting is the show’s main appeal, and she doesn’t disappoint. Although Burstyn has relatively little stage time, she delivers a moving and understated turn that provides a nice contrast to the frequent overplaying elsewhere in the cast. Her delivery of the classic “Seven Ages of Man” speech starts out in a casual, seemingly offhand manner, but gains intensity until it becomes deeply moving.
Less moving is the convoluted storyline concerning multiple pairs of lovers, which seems almost an afterthought in this scattershot rendition. Whenever things threaten to become tedious, which is often, Doyle has the actors engage in such bits of business as sweeping the playing area or kicking around a soccer ball. Not to mention recruiting a hapless audience member to deliver some of the dialogue, which in this case represented an improvement.
The performances are all over the map, with the standouts being Hannah Cabell’s feisty Rosalind and Quincy Tyler Bernstine’s appealing Celia. Veteran actress Cass Morgan is reliably good in two roles, while Noah Brody, usually seen in Fiasco Theater productions, proves his versatility once again with his turns as Oliver and Corin. Andre De Shields does his usual Andre De Shields thing as the jester Touchstone, although his preening is undeniably entertaining.
Bob Stillman, playing both Duke Frederick and Duke Senior, and Leenya Rideout, as Phoebe, earn their paychecks by playing musical instruments as well (another Doyle trademark). Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin) has contributed original music, although the innocuous ditties sound as if he knocked them out them in an afternoon.
While the play is set in a forest, there’s nary a tree to be found. Instead, Doyle’s design mainly features brightly illuminated orbs that change colors so often you begin to feel like you’re at a rave. If that’s not bad enough, some of them are positioned so low that they partially block the audience’s view. Unfortunately, they don’t go far enough.
Venue: Classic Stage Company, New York
Cast: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Noah Brody, Ellen Burstyn, Hannah Cabell, Andre De Shields, Cass Morgan, Leenya Rideout, David Samuel, Kyle Scatliffe, Bob Stillman
Director & set designer: John Doyle
Costume designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting designer: Mike Baldassari
Music: Stephen Schwartz
Presented by Classic Stage Company, in association with Bay Street Theater
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