Saturday, January 23, 2010

"As You Like It." Or Not.

Time was, I worked in my day job with a friend as passionate about theatre as I. I’d come into the office with my program the morning after seeing a play, and we’d go over it together. I would already have marked it up with Xs and check marks, and scribbles throughout, so we’d relive the good and bad bits of the production for a little while before the work day robbed us of our real lives.

Alas, we no longer work together, so I write reviews instead of speaking them. I still mark up the program with X’s and checkmarks and scribbles, and did so again on the subway ride home from seeing “As You Like It” (hereinafter “AYLI”) by William Shakespeare, at the BAM Harvey Theatre on Wednesday night, as directed by Sam Mendes for the Bridge Project. I’d been looking forward to it. The idea of the Bridge Project has been my dream of the perfect working life since I was about 14 – a group of actors playing in repertory, this one bettered by the ‘hands across the water’ aspect of the Bridge Project’s Anglo-American company.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

AYLI is not a play for which I have strong feelings – I’ve never acted in it or seen the perfect production. Nor do I have directorial yearnings to do an interpretation that brings the play to life in my mind. I preface my review so as to explain that I have no expectations that need fulfilling for this play. No hurdles need be leapt. I do, however, have expectations of the Bridge Project and Sam Mendes, and Wednesday night both were sorely disappointing.

Some highly skilled actors and some with lesser skills have not found the heart of this play. My conclusion: The director did not lead them to it. Sam Mendes, do not take a bow for this one. In fact, Mr. Mendes, tell me this: Have you read AYLI, and do you realize it is a romantic comedy? By the rules of Shakespeare, AYLI is a comedy because the young lovers, despite all the obstacles in their way, get married at the end. Romance. Get it?

This is not to say I had a dreadful time. There were plenty of good, even lovely moments during the evening. Just not a coherent whole.

POSITIVES (or "Good Stuff"):

Stephen Dillane as Jacques. His presence is entrancing – it’s an indefinable thing some performers have, and he’s got it. He’s so alive onstage that he owns it although he’s not trying to pull focus from anyone else. His phrasing is spot on, his wit disarming. In one brief scene I couldn’t quite hear him, and I hope someone from the production was in the audience so as to tell him to pick up that one scene with Rosalind-as-Ganymede. Beyond the technical, I have heard complaints that he wasn’t melancholy enough. But really, what does anyone think those quips and jibes are about. Dillane’s Jacques may not seem melancholic, unless you’ve ever met a comic. Melancholy does not mean his assessments aren’t on the mark or that he’s not funny. He’s scary funny. Jacques is just smarter than your average melancholic.

Alvin Epstein’s old Adam. Servant to Orlando’s family for decades, he chooses to follow our hero into exile. Epstein was believable, living, loving, as he trudged faithfully to the Forest of Arden, and dies beautifully at the end of the first half. With music.

Music: A positive and a negative. The music was well done, pretty, sweet and melancholy. With all the depressed people in this production, Jacques need not be morose. As I write this, I can hear Dana Falconberry’s new album, Halletts, in the other room. She can combine sweetness, light, and a touch of melancholy in a single phrase. Perhaps if Mr. Mendes had remembered AYLI was a comedy, he could have hired Dana for the music.

Edward Bennett’s Oliver. As the nasty elder brother of our hero Orlando, Edward Bennett was smarmy and mean. His transformation in the Forest to a better man, quite unusually, worked. More, I believed that sparks flew between him and Aliena/Celia. That instance of love-at-first-sight was played sweetly and surely, and not just for a laugh, as was Rosalind and Orlando’s. But more of that anon.

Michael Thomas as both Dukes, the usurping younger brother at Court, and Senior in the Forest, was solid as a rock, the actor in the company that plays whatever role he’s given well and honestly. He delineated both roles and played them surely, even when other actors on the stage may not have given him much to work with.

Ron Cephas Jones played the usurping Duke's wrestler Charles quite well, then reappeared in the Forest of Arden as the First Lord accompanying Duke Senior, doing his double duty well.

Thomas Sadoski as Touchstone was excellent, funny, and I wished him onstage much more often than he was. He’s in love, he’s not, he was, he wasn’t, he wants to wed Audrey, just not permanently. He’s hilarious and he had more heart than many a clown and just about anyone else on the stage, with the exception of Anthony O’Donnell and Aaron Krohn.

Anthony O’Donnell as the old shepherd, Corin. A funny fellow, good company, a wise old teacher, he is much smarter than those city folk think he is, rather sly, and sweet voiced. I quite enjoyed him.

Aaron Krohn was Silvius, the foolish young shepherd in love with Phoebe. He was sweet, sincere, focused, and paying attention. We should pay attention to him.

Jenni Barber’s Audrey was delightful. She lifted the scenes she was in, often in silence. The girl doesn’t need lines to be entrancing. She’s one of those small women often cast in ‘clown’ roles, presumably so she can throw herself into the arms of any size man and not only not knock him down, but bowl him over wrapping her legs around his waist -- as Elton John might have put it, “like a well worn tire.”

Ashlie Atkinson played Phoebe intelligently. She’s got the smarts but not the chops yet. I watched her and felt she was still in training, not yet fully committed or developed, or self confident. Brain, not heart. Nevertheless worth watching in years to come.

I’m torn on this one. I’m not sure if I liked this, but it certainly gave me a start when William (Ross Waiton), the “country youth” who also loves Audrey, with whom Touchstone is smitten, head-butted Touchstone. I actually let out a cry. Waiton was charming in his brief conversation with Touchstone, and certainly left an impression.

Michelle Beck rather overplayed Celia in the Court scenes at the beginning of the play, but came into her own when disguised as “Aliena.” She handled the abuse of Aliena well – the poor actor in that role is always stuck on stage with Rosalind talking and talking and talking. This may not always be hell, if the Rosalind/Ganymede is fun and not reciting rote lines with intellectual rigor. Through it all, Aliena must always stand witness. Ms. Beck had a response to all of these scenes, and it was negative – loyal to the death to her cousin doesn’t mean she can’t be angry with her and disapproving of her behavior. A valid choice well played in difficult scenes.

NEGATIVES (or "Not So Much"):

Alvin Epstein’s Oliver Martext. Yes, I know, I get it, the name is Mar text, but I didn’t understand a word he said, I didn’t know what he was doing, where he was going, who he was. He seemed to be from a different play. (Clear positive being that I didn’t recognize Epstein.) For me, that scene was wasted time on the stage. I believe it was one of too many contributing to this comedy running 2 ¾ hours.

Time. Comedies should not be 2 ¾ hours unless they’re interrupted by singing and dancing and good stuff. The Love's Labour's Lost I saw at Pace last month was three hours long and not a moment of it was wasted or annoying -- it was delightful. Generally, if Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers can do the main romantic comedy, sing and dance, plus subplots in about 80 minutes, everyone should. That may be extreme, but it’s a theme for me.

Dunking Oliver’s head into a bucket as inducement to get information on Orlando was far too reminiscent of modern waterboarding and did not belong in the play. I repeat: AYLI is a romantic comedy. Please!

I recognize that a director or actor may say, “Comedy, sure, but they are still people, with feelings, including anger and fear, etc., etc.” Yes, quite so. Please do play the character in the moment, stakes for each person must be high. That does not mean that the usurping duke’s methodology should in any way resemble Gitmo. And that’s all I have to say on the matter.

Final dance. I’ve seen it too many times before at the end of too many plays to find it charming, no matter how well the lively Audrey begins it.

Flow. Scene followed scene, but there was no flow, no ebb, no build, no rhythm to carry the story forward. In fact, what was the “story” of the play in this production?

Core issue: This is a comedy and a romance. The primary romance is between Orlando (Christian Camargo) and Rosalind (Juliet Rylance). Sound out those characters’ names. Or – lan – doooooooo. Rozzz – a lind. Lengthen the vowels. Relish them. These people are supposed to have fallen in love at first sight, they should speak each other’s names as if they were the most beautiful sounds in the world. They do not. (“All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word… Maria. Maria Maria Maria.” Thank you Stephen Sondheim.) If we don’t believe in the love story, if we don’t care if the lovers ever get together, where’s the story? Why was the audience expected to sit there for so very long waiting to see if those two people who did not appear to be in love would get together at the end?

Juliet Rylance was too busy showing off her skill in scansion to take the time to say Or Lannn DOoooo. She was, in fact, Johnny One Note throughout the evening, with minimal changes in her rhythms or stock of vocal and facial expressions. And she wouldn’t stand still. An annoying actor.

Christian Camargo as Orlando began the play dully (in an admittedly difficult opening scene in which his entire first monologue is the exposition of his own back story). (Aside: In this very same scene, Alvin Epstein showed inexperienced actors how to listen without appearing to be listening too hard.) Orlando’s wrestling scene with the Duke's man, Charles, appeared overly choreographed – as well as poorly lit -- as if Mendes couldn’t decide between a totally stylized or a realistic fight. After said match, Camargo was actually funny, when he could not speak in response to Rosalind. I had hope, then. Alas, he continued dull through the rest of the play. He lacks rhythm. He knows how to speak the verse, everyone in this production knows how. The intellect should take care of the scansion and memorization, and then let the character take over.

There should be a tug of war between Orlando and Rosalind-as-Ganymede-as-Rosalind in their wooing scenes in the Forest, but there’s really nothing going on. Even after the faux wedding performed by Michelle Beck as Aliena, Orlando and Rosalind kiss – this should reverberate through the theatre, but it does not even cause a ripple between the pair. This does not bode well for a love life.

These two actors may be married in real life, but they have no chemistry onstage.

I think the primary problem is that Camargo is miscast as Orlando. Even when Rosalind’s not around, the man’s uncomfortable in his skin. The stage does not belong to Christian Camargo. Orlando is a disgruntled boy, not a man until more than halfway through the play (and that’s about Adam, not Rosalind). When Orlando rushes the camp of the banished Duke in his armed attempt to steal food for his old servant, the Duke and his men refrain from killing Orlando-as-Armed-Interloper only because it’s in the script. Orlando’s actions should be totally inept, he should appear as the desperate child he is. That’s the reason Duke Senior should spare and befriend him. But Camargo appears to be about 15 years too old for this part, so Michael Thomas’ Duke Senior had to play the scene as if Camargo’s Orlando was clearly more endangered than dangerous despite what the audience could clearly see.

So where does that leave us? For me, at least, there are three major problems here.

1. Juliet Rylance playing Rosalind like a lit major with no training in acting, just interpreting verse. Conceivably her reserve could have been broken down by a sweetly romantic likeable Orlando.
2. Unfortunately she didn’t have that to play with, since Christian Camargo just doesn’t have “it” and doesn’t seem to try. He was a very languorous Orlando. Still, these first two problems are not insurmountable.
3. Insurmountable is a director who doesn’t recognize a comedy when he sees one, who directs the designers to be dark, dull, sullen, and sodden as the actors fade into strange backgrounds that belong in a Beckett play, when said actors should be leaping into the light.

How and why did Sam Mendes come to interpret this play as dark and gloomy even after all the characters arrive in the Forest of Arden? I cannot know, but he did not direct a comedy, and that’s a shame. It could have been fun.

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