Shakespeare meant the play to be fun. He called it As You Like It because, he presumably thought, he was giving the audience what they liked: a story about people kicked out of their proper lives who make a jolly new hardscrabble life for themselves in the woods, and then get to go back to their old life with a renewed sense of nature’s value. He mixed in a lot of old jokes, some songs, a wrestling match, fancy-dress verbal flights, and a set of sparky-silly love scenes in which a boy actor gets to play a girl pretending to be a boy. He mixed in darker elements, too, including a melancholy philosopher and a pair of sibling rivalries that lead to tyranny and death threats. Getting back to nature is good, one of the song lyrics tells us, because the cold winds aren’t as “unkind/As man’s ingratitude…Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.” But he made sure to wrap it all up with a deliberately absurd happy ending: a villain’s religious conversion, out of the blue, reported by the younger brother of two characters who’ve never once mentioned that they have a younger brother.
I suspect, though, that Classic Stage Company’s artistic director, John Doyle, doesn’t wholly approve of As You Like It being so much fun. His new production of it reconfigures CSC’s rectangular 13th Street space so that its long sides, one of which is normally the upstage wall, are now the arms of the U-shaped audience bleachers. While the long stage is brightly lit (by Mike Baldassari), Doyle tends to keep his actors huddled in the darkness under the tech booth. Periodically, he makes manful efforts to rouse the play’s inherent cheerfulness. Stephen Schwartz has provided a bouncy, show tune–like score, and the exiled Duke (Bob Stillman) appears to be a cabaret singer–pianist who’s thoughtfully brought his old upright with him into the Forest of Arden. Occasionally abetted by other cast members on violin, trumpet, and bass, Stillman — an accomplished singer-pianist as well as a fine actor — enlivens matters every time there’s a music cue, which to my taste isn’t nearly often enough.
Everyone else onstage has moments, too, in which they catch the playful spirit with which Shakespeare imbued this text. But only moments. Doyle’s overall approach is flattening, abstract, and (to borrow an image from the script) “dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage.” It’s odd and distressing because Doyle’s musical sense, one of his strongest suits, seems to have abandoned him here. He flattens the rhythm out of much of the text, either driving past the jokes or pounding them into the ground. Regarding erotic spark, in this play full of love and gender ambiguity, he supplies next to none, so that his intermissionless hour and 45 minutes of playing time seem more plot recitation than comic romance. And while much of Doyle’s heavy cutting was understandable, it makes no sense whatsoever to delete the entire resolution of the exiles’ story. It’s like staging A Doll’s House without having Nora slam the door.
The set, designed by Doyle, has its bright aspects but ultimately functions as a hindrance. It consists of a large number of green-hued hanging light globes, presumably meant to evoke the forest’s leafy canopy. The trouble is that, rather than conveying any atmosphere, they distract, a few of them suspended so low that they hide actors’ faces from one or another large segment of the audience. That they shift from their restful green into multiple other colors whenever the urge to stir up a festive mood takes over only reminds you that this production’s festive mood constantly seems to need stirring-up by some external factor; otherwise it tends to drag.
Given its castful of gifted performers, that shouldn’t be the case. As noted above, everyone onstage grabs a strong moment or two before sinking back into the prevailing torpor. Hannah Cabell, as Rosalind in disguise, makes a feisty, boyish Ganymede; the few tart verbal pinpricks that Quincy Tyler Bernstine gets exactly right, as Celia, show you the first-rate performance she might have given in the role. André De Shields’s grandiloquent Touchstone is hampered by a frock-coated courtier’s costume and direction that seems to make the character a dignified statesman rather than a clown by profession. (It did suggest to me that De Shields would make a fine Frederick Douglass.) Kyle Scatliffe has Orlando’s dignity but not his ardor; you can hardly believe he would go about a forest hanging poems on trees. Even the luminescence of Ellen Burstyn shines only fitfully in her melancholy take on Jaques — though one of the places where it does shine, most gratifyingly, is in her dark, Beckettian rendering of the “ages of man” speech.
Ironically, Doyle’s cutting of the play reveals a streak of the old-style Shakespeare-is-sacred-text approach that seems far from his production’s stark, bare-stage sensibility. Like many of the Bard’s comedies, As You Like It is full of the elaborate verbal conceits — fanciful extended metaphors — for which the modern world has long since lost its taste. Neither poetry nor drama, but a spoken form of show-offy decoration, they puzzle those unfamiliar with Elizabethan rhetoric and bring the action to a dead stop. Even for those of us who know and love Shakespearean diction, they can be a drag: Whenever a Rosalind pipes up, “I’ll tell you who Time ambles withal,” my immediate mental reaction is, “Please don’t.” And I’m willing to wager that I’m not alone in that.
Doyle has cut out some of these florid ornaments — including Touchstone’s “the seventh cause” routine, which comes late in the play and always slows up the ending — but he has retained a fair number of them, which adds to the perplexing uncertainty of his approach. Stark yet ornate, frivolous yet grim, static but full of frenetic rushing-about, it suggests a director uncomfortable with his own choice of play, like the host of a party who finds himself the one person not in a celebratory mood. It’s really a shame, since he had assembled the elements of a very good party, for him to then go and spoil everybody else’s fun. That’s not as Shakespeare, or anyone else, would have liked it.