As You Like It
nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
January 21, 2006
The first thing that one is introduced to in the Gallery Players’ production of As You Like It is Ann Bartek’s simple and elegant set. A series of grey platforms arranged at various heights are joined to the ceiling by thin white ropes pulled taut. This stylish design ingeniously suggests the Forest of Arden where most of the play will take place—the rope trees giving depth without obstructing view—and it also gives the set the feel of a giant stringed instrument that fits nicely with the production’s emphasis on music. For me it also symbolized the main problem I had with the production. This version of As You Like It, like the trees of its forest, seems like an exercise in form with not enough life attached to it.
And As You Like It, if anything, is about life. Shakespeare’s comedy follows the loves-sick youths Orlando and Rosalind who, banished by members of their respective families, abandon the corruption of courtly life and reconnect in the idyllic Forest of Arden. Here they find Rosalind’s father—the also banished Duke Senior—who has created a happy court of exiles in the woods. Rosalind, in disguise as the youth Ganymede, agrees to help Orlando woo his Rosalind, and also takes on the role of matchmaker between three other couples frolicking in Arden: the rustics Silvius and Phoebe, her cousin Celia and Orlando’s rehabilitated brother Oliver, and the clever court fool Touchstone with the simple Audrey.
Unfortunately, I found it hard to be swept away by this production. Director Neal Freeman has created a clean and efficient show that is nicely paced and skillfully staged, but it is also colored so safely within the lines that there is little to get excited about. While the cast delivers the language with clarity and commands the stage with a strong physical presence, this version of As You Like It is almost completely devoid of interesting character or thematic choices. Many of the performances—particularly the lovers—seem like they could easily be interchangeable, and what explorations the director is trying to make with this piece is hard to ascertain.
What Freeman does achieve is a theatrical construction of great aesthetic precision. David B. Thompson’s costumes, like Bartek’s set, is clear and coherent, with the drab grey uniforms of the court replaced by the multi-colored patterned vests sported by the residents of Arden. Freeman has sprinkled his production with live musical numbers, written by composer Alden Phelps and performed by Angela Hamilton on guitar and Heather Rogers on flute, that both provide melodies for the songs and serve as interludes between the actions. Freeman himself possesses a keen eye for tableau, and has meticulously choreographed the movement of the actors into a series of well-balanced and visually-pleasing pictures for the stage.
But while I admire the skill and the professional execution of this offering, this incarnation of As You Like It seems to present Shakespeare’s prose rather than inhabit it. At best I found this production blandly competent, more like a display copy of a play than an actual working model.