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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Rosalind and Celia on Amphetamines:
As You Like It at Shakespeare Theatre

Also see Bob's review of Inspecting Carol

As You Like It
Rebecca Bellingham and Victoria Mack
There are problems that mar As You Like It, the final 2005 season production of the Shakespeare Theatre. As it now stands, it has clearly been thoroughly thought out and has much to commend it. However, there are inconsistencies in tone along with rushed performances which cause the production to fall short of its aspirations.

In retrospect, the basis for the inconsistencies can be found in the Director’s Notes provided by Monte:

"... It had taken visual shape in my mind as a most delicious confection — one that features a delectable but almost weightless white cake center divided by a thin layer of rich, dark, bittersweet frosting, all covered in an elegant marbleized sweep of pale butter cream and chocolate icing.

Oh, how I underestimated the weight and flavors of As You Like It! I know now, after actually working on the play, that its richness is inexpressible. To be sure, much of it is light, airy, whimsical, improbable, silly, giddy, bawdy, romantic, and sublimely delightful, but it also contains a multitude of deep and complex layers that emerge with startling force and emotional impact when one starts to savor the play more deeply. The brilliance of its thematic strains, its gorgeous language, its witty and sage pronouncements on human behavior, its wonderful affirmation of all that is good, its assertion that the world is full of possibility, and its most affectionate but pragmatic embrace of humanity and human existence, raise it far above the level of mere froth and frolic. "

It is apparent that the production was conceived as a frothy family entertainment for the holiday season. A holly plant is the production’s logo. It is accompanied on the production’s poster by the quotation “Then heigh-ho the holly! This life is most jolly” from the song concluding act two. The principal setting (representing various locations in the forest of Arden) consists of a white rear wall with pretty artwork depicting giant crystal snowflakes, leaves and reindeer. There are trees composed of white lace and cool blue-white lighting, and the players are dressed in bright, airy colorful costumes.

However, casting a pall over the proceedings are the scenes depicting the deposed, exiled Duke Senior and his entourage. These are played with deliberation, dramatic emphasis and import which weigh down the entire production. The most glaring and off-putting example is Scott Wentworth’s interpretation of Jaques. The melancholy Jaques is given to long speeches on the vicissitudes of life. Although the Duke makes light of Jaques’ depressive moodiness (“If he ... grows musical, we shall shortly have discord in the spheres”) and Jaques does aspire to be the Duke’s fool, Wentworth and his director give inexplicable gravity to his melancholia. The low point is the gravity given to Jaques' famed Seven Ages of Man monologue. There is no groundwork to establish the presentation of what has become a major stand alone set piece. It demands a flashy declamatory or humorous approach. Here, it is undercut by being delivered in sotto voce, halting, overly dramatic tones.

Even more inexplicable is the unrelenting rapid-fire pace of the line readings of Victoria Mack as Rosalind (Duke Senior’s daughter who has been banished by his usurper brother) and Rebecca Bellingham as her devoted cousin Celia who has chosen to accompany her. It is their repartee that provides a large part of the delicious wit which has made As You Like It a favorite among Shakespeare’s comedies. And Mack and Bellingham are so good at so many levels that it is clear that they are capable of delivering performances of unalloyed delight. Their line readings are secure, clear and natural. Mack performs with an aware directness perfectly suited to Rosalind’s clear-headed intelligence and confidence. Bellingham conveys an immature girl’s unanalytic enthusiasm and openness. Yet both rush through their dialogue as if they are on amphetamines, making it impossible to either assimilate or savor their “sublimely delightful” dialogue.

It seems as if Monte felt the need to add inappropriate (especially for this "wrapped for the holidays" production) gravity to certain scenes, and then rushed the fun out of the heart of the play in order to bring it in at under three hours. Rosalind and Celia are central characters (leads in modern parlance). Denying them the stage time needed to allow their scenes to register is a major miscalculation.

Delivering strong performances notable for their appropriately unnuanced directness are Kevin Isola as the brash and impetuous Orlando, and Clark Carmichael as Oliver, Orlando’s dislikeable older brother. Mark Mineart has the right robustly amusing style as the sly and clever Fool, Touchstone, who accompanies Rosalind and Celia into the forest. Larry Swansen as Adam, the elderly servant who accompanies Orlando into the forest, is outstanding in conveying a compelling sincerity and dignity. Edward James Hyland is fine in conveying sternness rather than villainy as the cruel usurper. Tarah Flanagan’s shepherdess Phebe gets all her laughs with solid timing.

The sometimes too obvious doubling of roles causes confusion when Swansen makes a brief appearance as a country vicar. Touchstone has told a wench that he has brought the vicar to marry them. Initially, I thought that Touchstone was having the Swensen’s old servant pretend to be a vicar in order to fool her.

There is much wit and wisdom strung throughout this bright, most marvelous Shakespearean comedy. It is centuries ahead of its time in its feminism. It is not a dark comedy. All of the problems faced by its characters are magically resolved without delay or effort. Arden is such a magical place that we can accept the skimpy costuming in its snowy confines. What is not acceptable are the scenes which are performed with either inappropriate solemnity or humor-obfuscating, rapid-fire pacing.

With a little tweaking, Bonnie J. Monte may yet close the Shakespeare Theatre season As You Like It.

As You Like It continues performances (Eves.: Tues. 7:30 p.m./ Mon.-Sat. 8 p.m. (except 12/24, 12/31)/Sun. 7 p.m. 9 - except 12/25); Mats.: Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m. (except 12/24, 12/25); Extra Perfs. - 12/26 – 7:30 p.m./ 12/21, 12,23, 12/26, 12/28, 12/31 – 2 p.m.) through December 31, 2005 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey Main Stage, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940; Box Office: 973-408-5600; online www.shakespearenj.org/

As You Like It by William Shakespeare; directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast

Orlando………………………………….Kevin Isola
Adam, Vicar………………………Larry Swansen
Oliver…………………………Clark Carmichael
Denis……………………………………..Ryan Mills
Charles, William………………..Nathan Kaufman
Rosalind……………………………..Victoria Mack
Celia………………………..Rebecca Bellingham
Touchstone…………………………...Mark Mineart
Le Beau, Silvius………………………..Patrick Toon
Duke Senior…………………………Richard Bourg
Duke Frederick…………...Edward James Hyland
Amiens……………………………..Macadam Smith
Corin………………………..David Douglas Smith
Jaques…………………………...Scott Wentworth
Audrey…………………………...Colleen Piquette
Phebe………………………………..Tara Flanagan
Jaques 2…………………………Topher Mikels
Add’l. Cast…………………………….Tom Robenolt


Photo: © Carol Rosegg


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- Bob Rendell



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