Do we count William Shakespeare‘s pastoral romance As You Like It (the Acting Company, performing in the Guthrie‘s Dowling Studio, through Feb 3) among the bard’s weaker efforts? A mere pot-boiler, a crowd-pleaser? Lovers and court sophisticates retreating to the Forest of Arden, finding love and country simplicity and little else? Many literary critics (a dyspeptic and generally unpleasant lot) think so. The title – As You Like It – seems to suggest that Shakespeare himself disapproved of the play (I don’t care for this material; you might).
Or is something else going on? Do Rosalind (as the young man Ganymede, arguably the most famous instance of cross-dressing in literature), Celia (playing the bumpkin Aliena), the goofy Orlando, Touchstone (who always plays Touchstone), the now-ragged but strangely contented Duke Senior, et al discover something in the Forest of Arden that transcends mere affection? A simple, yet charged and magical world where Love = Forgiveness = Spirituality (the word “convert” is used several times) = Genuine Happiness.
An ardent lover of Shakespeare, I come down firmly in the latter camp: I find the Forest of Arden a place of poetic richness and depth. Thus it grieves me to report that in the Acting Company production of As You Like It, the Forest of Arden is presented, at best, in garbled and unaffecting fashion, with a jumble of theatrical motifs. Four tall evergreens are moved around, randomly. In July, these might have worked; now they seem like defrocked and naked Christmas trees. Three scratchy Victrolas are played and also moved around, to no discernible effect. Poorly constructed and designed masks are donned and removed. Music is metronomically dull and hampers the action. During the intermission, months pass – we go from winter to high summer – with no clear reference to the action.
Without an effectively rendered Forest, the production falls back on disguise, mistaken identity, cross dressing and romantic obsession. This is neatly done for sure, but much of the play’s intensity and beauty goes missing.
The Acting Company cast provides many pleasures. They are, to a person, young, blessed with sprightly verve and a brisk unambiguous grasp of Shakespeare’s dense language. Joseph Midyett plays Orlando with grinning charm and a mop of uncombable wiry hair. He energizes every scene he’s in, as does Minnesota native Elizabeth Stahlmann, she of the winning smile and unflagging energy, as Rosalind. Her Ganymede is excellent, the most believable I’ve ever seen. Her womanly swoon at the sight of blood surprises and affects. The production shies away from the homoeroticism of the Orlando-Ganymede connection (Why am I so strangely attracted to you?), a shame.
I disliked the way the Silvius-Phoebe relationship played out – too comically busy – but I recognized that the actors, Michael McDonald and Kelsey Landon (also a MN native), are both tremendously gifted. Christopher Michael McFarlane is wonderful as the fey and mustachioed Touchstone. Nary a thread nor a hair is out of place, even after months in the Forest.
I tried hard to like Chris Thorn as Jacques. Certainly, his Jacques is different, a combination dorky Silicon Valley techie/evil Rasputin. Very un-melancholic. I’ve never heard “All the world’s a stage” done so matter-of-fact (and so effectively). Thorn is an actor of power and presence.
There are reasons to see this As You like It: it’s Shakespeare! The actors are wonderful! But unfortunately, it’s a problematic production.
For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.