For the most part, Shakespeare’s As You Like It is a straightforward play. Although the plot can be somewhat circuitous and the language rather arcane, the play’s action is relatively uncomplicated. Two “evil” brothers, Duke Fredrick and Oliver, banish their “good” counterparts, Duke Senior and Orlando, from court, forcing them to seek safety in the Forest of Arden, a sylvan world of foolish shepherds and pastoral high jinks.
Enter the heroine, Rosalind, also expelled from court and, in typical Shakespearean fashion, disguised as a young boy. For several acts, she plays the beard to Orlando – the object of her desire – teaching him how to woo. Meanwhile, the rest of the Bard’s comic characters explore the polarities of love and hate amid Arden’s shady groves and verdant pastures. Shakespeare tosses in wise fool Touchstone and melancholy courtier Jaques as mouthpieces for his commentary on the action.
Characters come and go, interacting with one another. Finally, because it is a comedy, all personas are ultimately revealed, all evil is renounced and all love triumphs by the play’s end. Brothers forgive brothers, lovers pair up with their ordained partners, and many wedding songs are sung.
Dan McCleary, one of the Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s finest actors, has taken over the director’s reins for this production, but unfortunately, has ended up with a shaky and uneven rendering of the work. There are several reasons for the lack of cohesion in McCleary’s mounting, not the least of which might be his overly cerebral interpretation of the play. A clue may be found in the program’s director’s notes, wherein McCleary waxes rhapsodically about Rosalind’s imagination and the magical “if” of her daydreams and desires.
Now, without having eavesdropped on the rehearsal process, it is impossible to know for sure whether or not McCleary’s actors were asked to “play a theme” rather than find strong and consistent motivations and actions for their characters. But often, when performers seem to be pushing vocally or acting out clichéd movements, as they do here much too frequently, it is because they are looking for information in all the wrong places. When acting becomes an academic exercise rather than an organic exploration, the result tends to be the loud ranting and one-dimensional portrayals too evident in this production.
But another reason for the show’s slow pace (especially in the first half) and inconsistent style might be its relatively unseasoned cast. Many of the performers are either UCF acting students or in their first year with the company – more than proficient enough to speak clearly and not bump into the furniture, but unskilled in the intricacies of classical presentation. Sadly, this results in a college-like offering rather than the heretofore professional renditions for which the Shakespeare festival is well-known.
Polly Lee, as Rosalind, doesn’t miss a consonant but seems to be playing her role at a frantic pace throughout. When she isn’t shouting at someone, she can be most affecting, and one wishes she would ratchet down her inner dynamo from time to time.
Brad DePlanche, who specializes in Shakespearean fools, is a consummate clown but in this production rarely gets to show his mettle. He has to content himself trying to sell Touchstone’s verbal humor to a crowd hundreds of years removed from the gist of his musings, so most of what cracked up Shakespeare’s groundlings gets precious few laughs today. In fact, of all the performances, only Eric Zivot’s understated and finely shaped portrayal of Jaques rises to the company’s former standards.
Lastly, Bob Phillips’ vaguely Middle Eastern set design does little to enhance the play’s atmosphere, with chains replacing the trees of Arden and a giant steamer trunk serving as some sort of wormhole separating the play’s two environments.
This is one production in which the team at the Shakespeare Theater has either thought too much or perhaps not enough about what they wanted to accomplish. Either way, they’ve made As You Like It, an endearing Shakespeare work, somewhat difficult to firstname.lastname@example.org
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