It's bad news for a Shakespeare production when all it can do to keep you alert is tempt you with the possibility it will produce a cast recording. Musical theatre lovers are hereby urged to employ any and all wishes or trust funds they might have secreted away to make this happen - it's the best chance that good will arise from the Public's new production of As You Like It at the Delacorte.
As directed by Mark Lamos, it's a somber, even dreary way to kick off the stalwart company's 50th season, made most curious by the play's being one of Shakespeare's most genial gender-bending comedies. At its best, As You Like It plays as a blithely irreverent (and occasionally introspective) romantic romp for court folk and country dwellers who unearth love in the strangest places. Here, it tries so hard to be something for everyone that it has no time to be anything for itself. The result is a mesh of unkempt and uncoordinated acting styles that makes the story unusually difficult to follow.
Rosalind, the daughter of a banished duke who herself is soon banished, is played by Lynn Collins, recently seen in the Al Pacino Merchant of Venice film, embracing subtlety to the point of invisibility. The man she loves, Orlando, is taken hostage by James Waterston, who's apparently never met an indicative arm gesture or braying line delivery he didn't like. Rosalind's friend Celia, who accompanies her in her banishment, is Jennifer Ikeda, a smart, sharp young actress who flourishes in smaller venues but lacks the size necessary for the Delacorte. Richard Thomas sleepily mugs and intones his way through Touchstone, the jester who looks after Rosalind and Celia on their travels in the Forest Arden.
But just as Arden is the catalyst for characters to realize and embrace their romantic feelings, so is it there that we come across the production's single redeeming performance. Brian Bedford plays Jaques (one of the banished duke's attendants) as a beloved, aging uncle unafraid to tell it like it is; Bedford the actor speaks poetically with more natural ease than his costars speak plainly. When he takes control of the stage to deliver the play's most famous speech ("All the world's a stage," and so on) it's as if the world stops to allow its reigning patriarch a chance to simultaneously uplift and upbraid.
Jaques, though, shouldn't have to anchor the production - it's a small role more significant as the play's moral and spiritual center than as a contributor to the plot. That Bedford can handle the undue burden of carrying not only the show's language (with which he alone has an effortless facility) but its watchability is further testament to his talent and finesse. One would hope he could relinquish to Orlando and Rosalind some claim to stage presence and chemistry so they could further the story; alas, that's never the case.
When Rosalind dresses as a man for her forest adventures and ends up giving Orlando romantic advice (he has the soul, if not the talent, of a poet), it doesn't matter in any real way. Other minor characters - country girls, shepherds, and the like - drift aimlessly in and out, their presence usually needed to reflect, refract, and refocus the central romance, but unneeded this time around. Even scenic designer Riccardo Hernández lacks sensible inspiration - he's provided an enormous blue and gold astrolabe for the actors to cavort on. (The costumes, by Candice Donnelly are run-of-the-mill Shakespeare garb unrelated to Hernández's concept.)
At least William Finn and Vadim Feichtner have been enlisted to pick up some of the slack. They've composed the show's music, which in depth and breadth deserves to be considered a score: It's more than mere underscoring, more than accompaniment for Shakespeare's classic lyrics - it's its own character, one that makes surprise entrances and exits, comments on the action, and ultimately unlocks and encourages emotion in ways most of the production's human performers can't. The music feels intrusive only until its vital role has become firmly established - then it's indispensable.
At intermission, I heard more people discussing the score than the story, which makes sense; there's no question as to which is more varied and interesting. The chatterers must have been as thrilled as I was, when in the second act Finn and Feichtner's setting of "Sweet lovers love the spring" (jubilantly sung by Bob Stillman and Danny Fetter) proved one of the most memorable and tuneful show songs yet heard in 2005. It was the only time during the evening when Bedford wasn't at the center of the action that I felt involved with the show.
It just goes to prove that sometimes the best moments in theatre are the most unadorned. As You Like It doesn't need fancy filigree, it just needs casting and directing that will bring out the lighthearted play inside. But it's unsurprising that Lamos and lighting director Peter Kaczorowski felt the need to conjure the pastoral nature of the Forest of Arden by shining lights onto the trees that surround the Delacorte - almost no one here was capable of creating such theatrical magic any other way.
The Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park