Theater Review: A Sweet-Tempered “As You Like it”
By Bill Marx
In the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s likable staging of As You Like It, love looks pretty durable.
As You Like It by William Shakespeare. Directed by Harold Steward. Associate directed by Brooke Hardman. Staged by Actors’ Shakespeare Project, in partnership with The Theater Offensive, at Tufts University’s Balch Arena Theater, Medford, through June 25.
Sticking to Shakespeare’s language (albeit with some “translation” supplied by director Harold Steward) rather than choosing a modern rewrite is “As I Like It.” This genial staging of the Bard’s comedy isn’t hampered by the prosiness of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s previous production, a moribund Coriolanus. Yes, there is the inevitable updating. A satiric prologue invites us to see the staging as an entry in “Drag Queen Story Hour,” a jab at the absurdity of the campaign by conservative forces to banish drag performers from reading books to kids. (No age monitors necessary at the Globe Theatre — boys had to play girls in the good olde days.) Shakespeare’s interest in gender liquidity is spotlit and there are word changes as well as sliced-and-diced speeches. But, in general, the proceedings stick to the poetic entanglements that begin at an authoritarian court and move to the forest of Arden, which for director Steward comes off as a greensward populated by casually dressed outdoors people who are always ready to party.
In fact, they have to whoop it up. In his program notes, Steward tells us he believes in art as “applied social science,” and that in this As You Like It “the pursuit of love and the impulse to care supersede all forms of opposition and dissent.” I have a soft spot for dissent, as do some of Shakespeare’s characters, notably Jaques and Touchstone in this play. I bring this up because the script’s rough edges (what few there are) have been smoothed over, including Touchstone’s snobbery and Jaques’s misanthropy. As the latter figure, Bobbie Steinbach is not your usual maudlin naysayer or borderline nihilist — this grouch is a hugger. The accent on the sympathetic pays some dividends. For example, at the end of the “Seven Stages of Man” speech, this Jaques seems to be taken aback — even surprised — by where a human life ends up. This is a depressive who doesn’t get any kicks disillusioning others, which explains the character’s choice to head for a religious retreat. It is an act of self-exile.
Doug Lockwood makes for a playfully amusing white-faced Touchstone. But the clown’s mean streak is missing, particularly his condescension to the country folk (“Ay, now am I in Ardenne; the more fool I. When I was at home I was in a better place”), which flattens out the city-versus-country satire. Frankly, no one in the ASP’s Arden seems all that bothered by anyone else in the woods, aside from the lion who gnaws on Orlando. But what about old Adam, who (because of the Bard’s ageism?) doesn’t show up at his master Orlando’s wedding? Or is he dead?
Mortality be damned, love is downright infectious in this play, which sets the record for the number of marriages in the Bard. Apparently, Shakespeare wants the script’s multiple couplings to be viewed as cheery and promising, despite Rosalind’s spot-on skepticism about what sacrifices men have made or will make for love. This is a fairy tale world where ill-willed opposition can be conveniently vaporized away. Steward treats the temporary trials and tribulations of the Bard’s wannabe lovers with efficient dispatch and warm spirits. Aside from Steinbach’s softball spin on Jaques, the performances are straightforward, cast members generally providing the required charm or impish haminess. Lindsay Eagle plays one of the funniest Charleses I have ever seen: the oh-so-casual calisthenics of this overconfident wrestler are worthy of their own Peloton ad. It is unfortunate that the choreography of the match with Mishka Yarovoy’s Orlando is so lame. After all, Rosalind falls for the guy partly because she is smitten watching Orlando exert his physical prowess under pressure.
As Rosalind/Ganymede, Genevieve Simon supplies a sufficient amount of the celebrated character’s ample intelligence, wit, passion, and irrepressibility. Yarovoy’s Orlando is a convincingly shy nebbish of a suitor. Regine Vital infuses plenty of verve into the role of Celia. In fact, she maintains such savvy, sisterly rapport with Rosalind that it makes the character’s instant attraction to the contrite Oliver all the more baffling. The other cast members are solid, usually taking a deadpan approach, aside from Nathan Malin’s yodeling lovesick swain, Silvius.
The set is bare, except for a few stylized trees in the back waiting to be decorated by Orlando’s terrible love poetry. Props — most often lamps — are wheeled in from time to time. As for music, we hear recordings of a succession of love tunes, from the contemporary to the not-so, including Nat King Cole’s rendition of “When I Fall in Love (It will be Forever)” and the late Tina Turner singing “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” As Amiens’s song to the forest folk reminds us, the Bard would probably be in Turner’s court: “Most friendship is feigning, most loving, mere folly.” But in the ASP’s likable As You Like It, love looks pretty durable.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.