When artistic director Brian Kulick left the Classic Stage Company, I was hoping his vapid, celebrity-addicted productions would go with him. This season, the second helmed by his replacement John Doyle, begins with Mr. Doyle’s As You Like It, an affable if unambitious rendering that makes little use of setting or props and relies heavily on a mostly-strong cast. In other words: the jury is still out.
As one of Shakespeare’s “festive comedies,” As You Like It draws a strong contrast between city and country, between the freedom of the bucolic and the repression of the court. Many of the ironies here involve challenging common perceptions of both. For example, when Orlando (Kyle Scatliffe) first arrives in the Forest of Arden, he says, surprised, “I thought that all things had been savage here.” But in fact it is in the duchy where we have seen truly savage behavior: usurpations of brother by brother, banishments of niece by uncle, and a wrestler (David Samuel) who brags, “[H]e that escapes me without some broken limb shall acquit him well.” Unfortunately, Mr. Doyle does little to distinguish space, resulting in a somewhat monotonous staging; the shift to the forest is indicated through lighting changes, the wrestling match shoved offstage, and the burden left almost entirely on the shoulders of his actors.
What a relief that they rise to the challenge. Chief among the performances is Ellen Burstyn’s. As Jacques, the play’s resident melancholic, she often remains onstage to watch the action or read from a leather-bound edition of Shakespeare, bearing a private and wistful smile. Though I tend to find Jacques a little more fatuous—he is, as Marjorie Garber points out, fashionably sorrowful—her presence provides a nice counterpoint to the otherwise gay proceedings. Furthermore, André De Shield’s Touchstone is a pure delight: wearing an ascot and argyle socks, bearing a rainbow-colored umbrella, his spinning movements always have the echo of dance, as if he were always just about to grab a partner and break into a Viennese Waltz. And I would be remiss were I not to mention the wonderful chemistry between the entire cast, best exemplified by Hannah Cabell’s Rosalind and Quincy Tyler Bernstine’s Celia. The two speak and touch one another with an intimacy that is difficult to reach in a short rehearsal period, and this intimacy occasionally spills over to the audience: once, when a line from Touchstone elicited a laugh from the person siting next to me, Ms. Cabell turned around and breathed, “Right?” in response.
Still, I do wish Mr. Doyle demonstrated as much care as his actors. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with eschewing large sets or with tearing down the conventions of performance. But once done, something substantive must be put in its place—and frankly, a few lighting cues and the odd piano number just don’t cut it.
As You Like It runs through October 22nd at the Classic Stage Company. 136 E. 13th Street New York, NY. 1 hour 40 minutes. No intermission.