REVIEW: “As You Like It” in Identity Crisis

REVIEW: “As You Like It” in Identity Crisis

Classic Stage Company (CSC)—Off-Broadway’s venerable home for re-imagined classics—kicked off its 50th anniversary season this week with a production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” helmed by artistic director John Doyle, the celebrated director of Broadway’s recent revival of “The Color Purple”.

Mr. Doyle, an auteur known for his pared down productions of big musicals, became CSC’s artistic director in 2015 after several years as associate director, and has since curated excellent seasons directing several shows bearing his unmistakable stamp.  His 2014 CSC production of “Allegro”, the largely forgotten Rodgers and Hammerstein musical from 1947, still haunts me and remains one of my favorite and most memorable evenings at the theatre in recent years. 

There can be no doubt that Mr. Doyle, who is Scottish, has made quite a mark on the New York theatre scene since his debut with a smashing reinterpretation of “Sweeney Todd” back in 2005.  He holds great promise for the CSC season ahead, but “As You Like It”, which opened Thursday night, is regrettably not his best outing.

This production suffers from an identity crisis and lacks the comedy, romance, and poetry it should pack.  Advertised as a jazz-age adaption with promotional art bearing crystal chandeliers and the silhouette of a woman clad in an elegant evening gown, the actual aesthetic is more akin to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, the Coen brothers’ take on Homer’s “Odyssey” set in the dusty, sepia-toned deep south of the Great Depression 1930s.  Earthy tones, rather than art deco glamour, prevail and the Forest of Arden, where our lovers retreat for a classic Shakespearean tale of exiled royalty, banished children, cross-dressing, troubadours, and true love found (four weddings in the end!) is summoned by dozens of glowing, acorn shaped orb lights suspended from the ceiling of CSC’s exposed brick, factory black box. 

In typical Doyle-fashion, wood paneling, an upright piano, a trunk, and a couple chairs make out the rest of the set of his own design.  A mezzanine chamber is mostly pointless, and a giant cream-colored curtain distracting.  This is a small “As You Like It”, compared to the 189 member musical production by the Public Theater over Labor Day weekend, and the effect is rather uninspiring.

The “jazz” comes in several new songs by composer Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”, “Pippin”) set to Shakespeare’s couplets, and is less Ellington, Basie, or Handy, and more amiable throwaway ditty, the most memorable refrain: “And a hey, and a ho, and a noni noni no.”  The songs fall flat, are ill-interpolated, and do little to add to any sense of time or place.  Indeed, the overall theme is weak and feels put on, not in service to any larger vision or point. 

A hallmark of modern Shakespeare presentation has been the use non-traditional setting for these 17th century plays as a way to reveal new insights and breathe new life into the Elizabethan text and plot.  Here, the effort, while appreciated, is too diffuse and robs this magical play of its majesty, humor, and soul.

Mr. Doyle is to be applauded for casting a troupe of performers who are diverse in race and age.  A radiant Ellen Burstyn as Jacques delivers the most poignant speech of the evening, the famous “all the world’s a stage”, providing the melancholy grounding of this love story; Kyle Scatliffe (Harpo in the recent “The Color Purple”), is an energetic and winning Orlando; Quincy Tyler Bernstine elicits the most laughs as Rosalind’s sardonic cousin and fellow forest journeyer Celia; and André de Shields (Broadway’s iconic Wiz from “The Wiz”) is larger than life as Touchstone, the court jester.  Each of these performances shines, but due to the lack of cohesion in this production, each also feels as if they are in a different show.

All this said, the evening is still mildly enjoyable.  The play is presented in a fleet 100 intermission-less minutes that would leave Shakespeare’s patrons at the Globe feeling cheated, but is sufficient time for us to visit with this adaptation. 

Bottom Line: lovers of Shakespeare looking for a droll if-uninspired jaunt might enjoy this production, otherwise skip this ill-conceived and ill-executed adaption, and wait for a better production by director John Doyle.  

As You Like It
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
New York, NY 10003

Running Time: 100 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: September 28, 2017
Final Performance: October 22, 2017

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