STAUNTON, VA – A theatrical excursion into Virginia is always worthwhile if the destination is at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse. The surrounding landscape of the town of Staunton is idyllic, a perfect place to see Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It,” in which a banished duke and his vanquished courtiers find in nature […]
STAUNTON, VA – A theatrical excursion into Virginia is always worthwhile if the destination is at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse.
The surrounding landscape of the town of Staunton is idyllic, a perfect place to see Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It,” in which a banished duke and his vanquished courtiers find in nature every aspect which makes life worth living: “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
Yet, the story does not begin in an idyllic way – nor does it commence much like a comedy. At the outset of the play, Duke Frederick takes over the court of his older brother, whom we only know as Duke Senior. The coup triggers a sequence of events which eventually causes each of the characters to reach a specific epiphany about love and life at court.
When Rosalind, Duke Frederick’s daughter, is banished from court on pain of death, her exile to the Forest of Arden forces her to realize that she can help herself as well as others; in disguise, she gives her lover Orlando advice on how to woo her. By helping Orlando, she assists others in achieving their own realizations and dreams, and this spreads through a series of plots of love and betrayal which mirror one another. The whole play works in a cycle – the cycle of life, the cycle of nature, and the cycle of love.
The foreground of the stage, as is usual in a Blackfriars production, is barren of props. The background, however, boasts painted trees, which achieve importance when love-smitten Orlando (convincingly portrayed by Brandon Carter) posts his poems on them – and just about everywhere else in the theater, as the audience will amusingly discover!
The play has many characters: two sets of feuding brothers as well as four couples who are either in love or fighting love. Fortunately, the costuming, which broadly suggests the late 1800s or early 1900s, cleverly helps the audience follow the intricate plot.
The courtiers of the stern usurper Duke Frederick (played with verve by John Harrell) are dressed in puritanical black, whereas Duke Senior’s gentle courtiers are dressed in pastels and sport Panama-style hats.
The summer theme is all the more striking given that Duke Senior (David Anthony Lewis) suggests it is winter in the Forest of Arden (“Blow, blow, thou winter wind”); however, the summer choice of clothing, along with the use of American and Mid-Atlantic (rather than purely English) accents, may make the play easier to follow.
Nonetheless, a person unfamiliar with this Shakespearean comedy might wish to read a summary before attending.
Rosalind, unquestionably the main character of the play with something on the order of half of the play’s lines, is played energetically and persuasively by Allie Babich. In much of the play, she must pretend to be a male, the saucy youth Ganymede. This is always a challenge for productions of “As You Like It.” Playing Ganymede as too feminine strains believability, but portraying the character as overly male destroys some of the fun of the play, as much of the humor hinges on the irony that Ganymede/Rosalind is actually a woman. The current Blackfriars production solves the problem rather cleverly: there are already women playing men’s roles in the production, such as some of Duke Senior’s courtiers in the Forest of Arden. Thanks to this background, it is easier for the audience to accept Orlando’s taking of Rosalind as being the male Ganymede, as viewers have already grown accustomed to the production’s occasionally gender-fluid casting choices.
Some particularly amusing comic parts include a “Can-Can” dance by the cast at the end in the fashion of Jacques Offenbach and an Irish Setter playing a feral beast in the wilds of the Forest of Arden. An unexpectedly poignant moment, on the other hand, occurs when Jacques, brilliantly played by Jessika Williams, delivers the famous “Seven Ages of Man” (or “All the World’s a Stage”) monologue, reflecting how we live out the various stages of our lives. While the early stages of life, like the sullen boy “creeping unwillingly to school” are portrayed (sometimes with audience help) with dazzling comedy, by the time we reach the end of the speech, and old age, death and oblivion are referenced, Jacques/Jessika has us nearly in tears. Another standout actor is Greg Brostrom, who brings a riotous performance to the character of Touchstone, the erstwhile court jester and now “the fool in the forest.”
That very same evening, Mr. Brostrom portrayed, in a very different Shakespeare play, the dark and sinister Richard III. It shows the versatility of the Blackfriars cast, moving from play to play and from comedy to history to tragedy.
All told, the Blackfriars production of “As You Like It,” directed brilliantly by Ralph Alan Cohen, offers effectively both the comedic as well as the philosophical tones of the play, each in a highly entertaining fashion. Because “As You Like It” deals with seasons of nature and seasons of life, it is perhaps appropriate that one may see it in late summer, autumn or even early winter, as the play enjoys a relatively long run through December 2.