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As You Like It

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

As You Like It
Michelle Beck, Thomas Sadoski, and Juliet Rylance.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Has Jaques's melancholy polluted the entire Forest of Arden? The first half of Sam Mendes's new production of As You Like It, at the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, does not take a turn for the verdant or the pastoral when the court invades the woods. What was monochromatic and violent in the castle is no less so outdoors, with suspicion, draining energy, and even - in one of the most startling moments - a death to remind that our problems don't vanish just because our usual surroundings do. You have every reason to think, watching all this unfold, that Mendes has unleashed another razor-edged reconception that sucks the life and fun from one of Wiliam Shakespeare's most characteristic comedies.

Not quite. By the time Mendes and his exemplary company are through, he hasn't violated tradition, but enhanced it. The second half restores the play's color and augments its vibrancy with the knowledge that for the city dwellers and countryfolk alike - all of whom are hapless in their own ways - that the dark always precedes the lark. In fact, by the time the rebels and revels have concluded, you may strain to remember exactly what seemed so off about the foray into sadness in the first place. Don't happy endings always need a bit of strife?

There's not much more to find here, that's for sure. This outing of the second season of The Bridge Project, which unites American and British actors on a world-touring quest through the classics, is a nearly seamless blend of melody and harmony that plays to the strengths of performers - and expectations - on both shores of the Atlantic. You can say, if you like, that first act is aimed at the U.K., where stark and serious Shakespeare is the order of the day; and the second half pleases Americans who like to sample their bard light. And surely it's not a coincidence the more dramatic roles here are typically filled by the English and the jokesters by Americans (with, yes, a few crossovers).

As You Like It
Christian Camargo.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

But you won't care much one way or another once the show begins and the evenly balanced troupe revs up. The troubled and troublesome Orlando, who falls in love with the deposed Duke Senior's daughter Rosalind, is played by Christian Camargo with a blend of Goth and rock-star verve that make him equal parts charming and dangerous. Rosalind herself, the daughter of Duke Senior, is left in court, but compelled to escape; Juliet Rylance finds in her the right sense of haunted responsibility to justify her escaping into the Forest, dressed for protection as a man named Ganymede. Michelle Beck is highly excitable as Rosalind's confidante, Celia, but that's not a stretch for a character who, like her usurping duke father, needs to be brought down a few pegs.

Joining them is the jester Touchstone, whom Thomas Sadoski embodies with a Jim Carrey-like affable unpredictability and his own unquenchable antic energy. Sadoski, who was so marvelous last season as the maybe-inconsiderate boyfriend in Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty, reveals more levels of his talent here for adding shadings to obvious comedy - he's rapidly establishing himself as one of New York's most valuable young comic actors.

Also filling out the country crew are Jenni Barber and Ashlie Atkinson as Audrey and Phoebe, the two lovesick country girls who get wrapped up in all the silliness, along with their shepherd counterparts Corin and Silvius (Anthony O'Donnell and Aaron Krohn.) Edward Bennett brings a staunch starchiness to Orlando's scheming older brother, Oliver; and Ron Cephas Jones makes Charles the wrestler more intellectual, threatening, and memorable than the meat-heat brute the character is usually portrayed as.

None of this should surprise with Mendes at the helm - as a stage director, he's long since proven himself fond of playing with convention, especially in his musicals (such as the revivals of Cabaret and Gypsy). He lets Shakespeare's lyricism shine through here, with the help of composer Mark Bennett, who's crafted a lilting and lulling score that is always close in keeping with the mood Mendes establishes. One of the songs is given a bizarre yet appropriate Bob Dylan-style rendition; another is performed as a comedy quartet, with tight choreography (by Josh Prince), yet the mixture of genres never feels any more out of place than the actors - or, ultimately, that intermission shift from nighttime to day.


The Bridge Project
As You Like It
Through March 13
Brooklyn Academy of Music Harvey Theater, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Brooklyn Academy of Music