As You Like It
nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
July 6, 2005
There is precious little professional dignity in picking up a reviewer’s press packet on the way into a show, and leaving with a summer night’s crush on the main character. It’s even more humiliating, frankly, to admit in writing and I suppose prouder reviewers might leave that detail out, or mask it with heavy praise for the writer. Well, it’s easy enough to grant that William Shakespeare, though too dead to probably care, does indeed have a hit with As You Like It, now at the Delacorte as this year’s first installment of Shakespeare in the Park by the Public Theatre. But when Shakespeare’s premier heroine, Rosalind, is let loose to hit all the giddy, dashing notes that are nailed in Lynn Collins’s performance, it is impossible not to muse, perhaps with a hint of envy, that our hero Orlando gets himself quite a catch in his happy marriage to her in the end.
As You Like It is unique amongst the Bard’s work in that the smartest, funniest, most powerful, most important character driving the main action throughout, achieving 100% success through pure strategy, is female. Rosalind, daughter of the banished Duke Senior, remains in the court of his treacherous usurper brother, Duke Frederick. Rather than banish his niece as well, Duke Frederick keeps Rosalind as company for her soulmate, his daughter Celia. But Rosalind’s beauty and charm bring out sympathy for her plight from the masses, and Duke Frederick finally does send her away. Celia and the court jester Touchstone pledge to follow Rosalind, who, disguised as a man, escapes into the Forest Arden, where Duke Senior is also encamped with nobles loyal to him. One more party enters the forest, Orlando and his servant Adam. Earlier, Orlando (delivered here with gusto by fresh-faced James Waterston) wrestles Duke Frederick’s champion at court, and wins his match and the heart of Rosalind. He also has to run for the woods, as Duke Frederick finds out he is the son of one of his most bitter enemies. Still in her male disguise, Rosalind vows to confront Orlando in the woods, and teach him the ways of love.
The youthful Lynn Collins shoots off sparks of clever energy as she flirts with Orlando, shifting moods with hilarious recklessness to keep him on his toes. Her Rosalind is endlessly engaging because she joyously authenticates a romantic notion that humanity never tires of: Love brings out the best in us. When we find our true love, the floodgates open and instantly we become smarter, sexier, wittier, younger, more generous, and better at problem-solving. Rosalind is inspiring. Shakespeare gives her the Epilogue for a reason—she knows the most, and she wins. Who else would we want to have the final word? Collins does so, and it has the exuberance of a victory lap as she completes her mastery of “the female Hamlet.”
Rosalind’s quick-witted match in the woods of Arden is Duke Senior’s dour advisor, Jacques, played by the great veteran actor Brian Bedford. The dexterity of his crotchety timing gives Collins's performance a run for its money as highlight of the evening. Bedford revels in the marvelous paradox of Jacques: he is a misanthrope who believes his baleful perception of the world is truly one-of-a-kind, yet cannot hide his delight in discovering new perspectives, borne of feisty minds. Bedford gracefully steps through a problem Shakespearean actors must often navigate: speaking a speech that is so famous everyone practically knows it by heart, even Shakespearean novices. For Hamlet, it’s the “To be or not to be” speech; Jacques actors get “All the world’s a stage.” Bedford gives it a unique spin, turning it about in his mind as a raw but promising idea that occurs to him when Duke Senior remarks “This wide and universal theatre / Presents more woeful pageants than the scene / Wherein we play in.” As he happily expounds on this theme with the famous “seven ages of man” speech, he enjoys the intellectual one-upmanship of it, and the opportunity to prove that his is the king brain of the exiled court, and he the keenest philosopher in Arden.
But for poor Jacques, finding a quiet, meditative spot in that woods is the devil’s chore, as couples frolic through the brush like squirrels. In addition to Rosalind and her wrestling hunk, we watch the courtly smugness of Touchstone (Richard Thomas) winning over the easily dazzled shepherdess Audrey (Vanessa Aspillaga), and the hapless country lad Silvius (Michael Esper) trying to pluck even a kind word out of the explosive fury of another shepherdess, Phoebe (Jennifer Dundas). Phoebe is by turns delighted and agog at the cheek of Rosalind’s male persona, and sets up a strategy to allure what she doesn’t know to be a woman. Lastly, Celia (Jennifer Ikeda) finds herself drawn to Orlando’s previously domineering guardian and brother, Oliver (Al Espinosa), now redeemed in Arden by the strange forces of the woods, and the power of Orlando’s forgiveness. The lovers are all expertly taken through the games of couplehood by these nimble actors, and it is with warm regard that we watch the Arden hormones settle down just long enough to smooth all romantic entanglements and hitch these lovers to their mates in the strong bind of marriage.
Director Mark Lamos delivers the story in a simple, straightforward manner, allowing the rich performances to blossom naturally from the text. The set and costume designs, by Riccardo Hernández and Candice Donnelly respectively, are unobtrusive and lovely. Dreamy music composed by William Finn and Vadim Feichtner complements the fairy-tale atmosphere of the story, and includes songs sung beautifully by Bob Stillman as Duke Senior’s crooner, Amiens.
As You Like It is a sublime, romantic night of theatre, and is made all the cheerier by the summer air of Central Park. It is the perfect atmosphere to listen and think on love, loyalty, nature, and redemption. I must admit to being relieved at the cast’s lack of mega-stars of the silver and television screen. All of the actors are of the finest caliber, to be sure, and have many prominent credits in all areas of acting. But the production’s earnestness is thankfully not undermined by a star-struck audience’s proximity to celebrities. Joseph Papp’s original vision for Shakespeare in the Park, now in its fiftieth season, seems more authentically fulfilled when the freely-admitted public is exposed not only to the most beautiful language ever written, but to ferociously talented actors that are not such household names that they uproot the sense of community that makes this institution a jewel of New York.