When it comes to As You Like It I usually don’t. As a rule, Shakespeare’s comedies leave me cold. I like my Bard with a little Tybalt in it; a Cordelia and her mad daddy at odds and then reconciled; or a couple of star-crossed lovers dead in a heap on the cold stone floor, the whole neighborhood full of regret.
Sam Mendes’ direction of As You Like It at BAM’s Harvey Theater changed my mind -- not in a pure binary way, but in one of those subtle shifts of perception that dissolves intolerance and makes the world richer and more inclusive for it.
Shakespeare’s comedies are now something more subtle and rich and real than they were before.
The set design is richly cinematic, with a luminous quality that one might expect from the director of American Beauty, but most appreciable was the transformation of the story itself from the ways I’ve experienced it in previous productions (in less capable hands).
Mendes has uncovered something true about Shakespeare’s play that I never knew.
Gone is the madcap screwball tone and laughable gender confusions. Instead:
- The gravity that binds us to those we care for occupied the stage like an unnamed actor, swinging the players into their orbits as gravity influences planets around a single star in unique but concomitant obliques.
- Twinning was everywhere and beautifully explicated in ways far more psychologically revealing than Rosalind could convey by simply donning drag. Power and class are flip flopped; gender is bent. When we move from the court of the usurping Duke to the winter woods of his expulsed brother we see the treacherous Duke (whom we’ve come to know as erratic and violent -- fearful of maintaining his shaky status) step, with his retinue, to the hard wood wall that backs the stage. In the dim light the wall rises to reveal the wild and the wood behind them, and they step out of their court finery into weather ravaged rags. Before our eyes they become the court in exile. Before our eyes we see the wheel of Fortune spin and end on her head.
- We see the play’s hallmark gender confusion played out not as buffoonery but as a part and parcel slice of humanity, where human sexuality is more subtle than a pure pipefitting of parts, and all players are ultimately more nuanced than they seem.
Where the production is weak:
- There’s a lovely strain of melancholy that moves through the play and influences its pacing. This works beautifully until the end, where it’s forced upon the reconciliation scene where parties are wed and the father and daughter are reunited. We need a little more madcap pacing here to make it play right; a few more exuberant reunion embraces, and we need them sooner than they were received.
- Somewhere in the mix, too, we lose sight of why Rosalind remains disguised in the forest. She’s encountered her father, we learn, and yet remains concealed. Why? It supports her charade with Orlando, of course, but the threat is no longer clear or imminent -- we need a sharp reminder of why she conceals her true self once she’s transitioned to the safety of the woods.
But these are small things, and the play as a whole is a lovely retreat and a mind opening three hours. Bonus to the whole is the delicate integration of orchestration. Musicians are placed both above the stage to set the tone and then emerge to make music within it. I’m of the school that believes a well-made play has a little bit of music and dancing in it -- As You Like It accomplishes both, and the choreography of the happily coupled pairs somehow managed make me cry, which I have to count as a success even though it startled me.
Thank you, Mr. Mendes, and Company. As it turns out, I liked it very much indeed.
As You Like It is a Bridge Project production, a collaboration between BAM, the Old Vic and Neal Street. It will run at BAM through March 13th.
Ashlie Atkinson, Phoebe
Jenni Barber, Audrey
Michelle Beck, Celia
Edward Bennet, Oliver
Christian Camargo, Orlando
Stephen Dillane, Jaques
Alvin Epstein, Adam & Sir Oliver Martext
Jonathan Lincoln Fried, Le Beau
Richard Hansell, Amiens
Ron Cephas Jones, Charles the Wrestler
Aaron Krohn, Silvius
Anthony O’Donnell, Corin
Juliet Rylance, Rosalind
Thomas Sadoski, Touchstone
Michael Thomas, Dukes Frederick & Senior
Ross Waiton, William
Stephen Bentley-Klein and Shane Shanahan, Musicians
Originally uploaded by beebo wallace
 I mentioned to my brother -- my date for the evening -- that the wall in question reminded me of the wall in Mary Stuart, representing her imprisonment in the Tower. Come to find out it wasn’t happenstance -- Neal Street, Sam Mendes production company which is entangled in the Bridge Project, was also involved in bringing Mary Stuart to Broadway.