Probably no Shakespeare play needs a rewrite more desperately than As You Like It. Clumsy in construction and vapid in characterization, it has been produced so often that its half-dozen good scenes and fewer good jokes have lost nearly all their charm, while its long static passages of illustrative prose, both the still comprehensible and the hopelessly antiquated kind, have become as dismally familiar to me as treadmills are to those who work out, except that I am not allowed to read or listen to the music of my choice while they roll on.
Shakespeare’s contemporaries viewed these motor-stalling passages as having considerable aesthetic justification: For Elizabethans, drama, like any other branch of poetry, had social and moral functions to be expressed in these separable chunks of text, the verbal equivalents of visual emblems. And theirs was a time when wit, in the tradition of court jesters, meant a self-contained display of verbal fireworks, often a parody of precisely this kind of moral illustration. Shakespeare subsequently became a master at integrating both types of verbal obstacle into the flow of a dramatic action but that does not justify our having to see As You Like It over and over again.
It isn’t only Jaques’s moral reflections and Touchstone’s logic-chopping games that drag: Having the self-conscious character of a fable, the play is so overcrowded with these bejeweled cinderblocks of prose that almost any character can start talking like Jaques or Touchstone at any moment: Rosalind, posing as a boy, talks like Touchstone, and it never occurs to her hearers to ask how a simple adolescent cottager should have learned to rattle off quips like a London pamphleteer.
I realize, of course, that I’m being a terrible curmudgeon about this—all the more because there are parts of As You Like It that sucker me right along with everybody else in the house: I always get teary eyed when the Duke faces down Orlando’s sword; I always wince with recognition when Amiens sings, “Most friendship is feigning/Most loving mere folly”; and I never saw a Rosalind who couldn’t make me smile at “But I pray you commend my counterfeiting to him.” That Shakespeare didn’t find the way to make so many kinds of stylized set pieces cohere into a single dramatic narrative does not mean he was an idiot—if anything, his effort to try such a range of elements at once shows the breadth of both his knowledge and his ambition. As You Like It is a comic disquisition on the varieties of love and the waywardness of what sociologists call life chances, a study in modes of accepting the impossible capriciousness of the world. Some dukes can cope with any lifestyle, some usurpers repent and give their kingdoms away, some loves seem preordained, others seem like predestined hells. And there are no reliable guesses, any more than there are reliable dramatic forms.
Still, it’s the artists’ job to beguile us into thinking that the show we watch has some overall coherence. This doesn’t happen in Mark Lamos’s Central Park production, which tries not too many things, but too many mismatched kinds of things. Part of it is conceptual, part drawn from some arcane psychological interpretation, part lumpish foolery to placate the park’s groundlings, and part that old-time-Shakespeare religion in which time and sanity are forced to stand still while some famous actor solemnly recites a famous passage. All of these approaches have their value, but they don’t make much sense together; it’s like that odious nouvelle-cuisine mode of serving in which you never know what’s actually on your plate because the items are piled vertically on top of one another, so that it’s impossible to savor the steak without tasting the watercress or the mashed turnips. The approach makes it painfully clear that As You Like It contains an awful lot of mashed turnips.
Riccardo Hernandez’s set is a giant multicolored sundial, crisscrossed by giant yellow strips with Latin mottos on them, hung about with giant blue geese and trees, angled to suggest an amusement park Tilt-a-Whirl. Candice Donnelly’s costumes are bright-colored Tudor traditional, with Touchstone (Richard Thomas) in a green motley that blots out his figure whenever he’s upstage near the shrubbery. Some passages are heavily physicalized, with actors jumping on top of one another; others are left weirdly static.
With the play’s politics and philosophy, Lamos pushes toward stylized fable: Duke Frederick (David Cromwell) and Oliver (Al Espinosa) are identical traitless bullies; doubling as the exiled Duke Senior, Cromwell is no more than blandly nice. In the love department, Lamos pulls toward the oddly psychoanalytic: Lynn Collins, whose Rosalind proves her a winning and accomplished artist, invests her declarations of love with such dark intensity that she seems to be foreshadowing the fate of Andromache or Medea. Her extremity of feeling may be overcompensation for James Waterston’s unimpressive Orlando, slouching and weak voiced. Richard Thomas animates Touchstone’s jester routines efficiently, but appears downright apathetic toward Vanessa Aspillaga’s ponderous Audrey. The only couple that seems reasonably matched, ironically, is the love-hate team: Michael Esper’s neurasthenic Silvius and Jennifer Dundas’s cheerily disdainful Phoebe. More gloomily disdainful, Brian Bedford plays Jaques skillfully, as an extension of his Alceste and his Hamlet, an old-fashioned interpretation that might make a lot of sense in a different context, but hardly on this Tilt-a-Whirl.