There are two different plays in performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater. The second year of Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project, bringing English companies to perform in America, has two Shakespeare plays on the bill: As You Like It and The Tempest. They should be billed as three, because the production of As You Like It is not one play, but two. This performance, which differs so strongly and contrasts so sharply with itself cannot be considered just one play.
Described as a pastoral comedy, As You Like It can be considered a lighthearted Shakespearean romp in the woods, complete with cross-dressing, mistaken identities and a happy ending resulting in several marriages. While all of those elements exist in this production, they are overshadowed by the darker themes – abuse of power, distrust of fellow men and the danger of the bitter cold of winter. While crucial to the plot, these elements are focused on so strongly and emphasized so greatly that threaten to overtake the production. Rather than smiling while leaving the theater, thinking of true love and wedded bliss, I found myself shivering as I pictured the dark, hollow forest set up onstage.
This forest is the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind and her cousin Celia are exiled to by Celia’s father, Duke Frederick (Michael Thomas). Rosalind is smitten with Orlando after meeting him at a wrestling match, but she is disguised as a boy and when he stumbles upon her in the woods, he does not recognize her. She quickly offers to counsel him in the matters of love (as her male alter-ego) in hopes of testing his fidelity and ascertaining if his feelings for her are true. Her father, played in a gentle, restrained performance by Michael Thomas, also banished by Duke Frederick, is also living in the woods with a band of fellow men but he too fails to recognize his daughter in disguise.
Other romances begin in this forest, which seems to spring to life from its cold, dark roots when young romances are blossoming: the fool Touchstone (Thomas Sadoski) and the dim-witted Audrey (a very amusing Jenni Barber), the shepard Silvius (Aaron Krohn) and his beloved Phoebe (Ashlie Atkinson) and Rosalind’s cousin Celia (Michelle Beck) and Orlando’s brother Oliver (Edward Bennett). It appears the “lusty month of May” was borrowed from Camelot and deposited in Arden, at least for a few spare moments here and there.
While all the cast members deliver solid performances, the show is swiftly and quietly stolen by the fool Jacques, played by Stephen Dillane. Subtle and sly, his cynical commentary offers much needed levity, whether it is bringing a flash of humor to the dark winter scenes or a dose of much-needed realism in the fervently emotional exchanges of Rosalind and Christian. Played by Juliet Rylance, this Rosalind is cautious and calculated in her assessment of Christian, but the depth of her feelings results in her occasional outbursts, which are truly humorous and endearing. Christian Camargo’s Orlando is of a similar temperament; one is able to see how these two would love each other (offstage, they are married).
Rosalind’s transformation into a man is interesting to view. While hesitant to express her love for Orlando at first (at least, for a few moments), once disguised as Ganymede, Rosalind becomes eloquent and expressive, offering valuable insight into the confusing mind of a woman in love. It is refreshing to see that once she has lost her trousers and donned a wedding gown, she remains as well-spoken. Another feminist aspect of the script highlighted by this production is Celia’s rebuke of Rosalind for “abusing” the female sex with her hysterics. This critic found herself wishing for more insight into this woman’s mind to accompany that of Rosalind’s.
Despite the humor and happiness of the script, this production cannot escape the innate darkness that haunts it. The pain exhibited in Orlando’s wrestling match, the torture performed to wean information out of reluctant betrayers, and the portrayal of the death of Orlando’s faithful servant Adam (Alvin Epstein) all linger in one’s memory, drowning out the refrain of “sweet melody about spring sung in the second act. And no matter the affectionate reference to nature as having, “Schools in stones, books in running brooks and good in everything,” this forest is dark, and all the love in the world can’t seem to brighten it.