Delighted with the Richard III we’d seen in 2010, we went back to Lenox, Massachusetts a week ago to see Shakespeare & Company’s As You Like It. This was Shakespeare without gimmicks — lively, well-acted, well-directed, and low-tech, done by people who weren’t afraid the play itself wouldn’t be enough to entertain an audience. We couldn’t have spent our afternoon better, and the rest of the smiling audience apparently thought as we did.
The story of As You Like It is fundamentally frivolous, and this company didn’t try to make the play carry more than it could. For many years we had trouble appreciating the Shakespeare comedies; the humor depends so much on now-obsolete turns of phrase. But in this show the gags and laugh lines seemed spontaneous and fresh.
This play is, we now realize, a love story. We don’t mean the infatuations that flare up like dry grass between Rosalind and Orlando, Celia and Oliver, and the jester Touchstone and the country wench Audrey; we mean instead the solid, sisterly love betweeen Rosalind (Merritt Janson) and Celia (Kelley Curran). Their rapport was transparent; we had no difficulty believing that the affectionate Celia would leave her cushy life at the court to accompany her boy-crazy cousin into exile. Rosalind and Celia will always be best friends, but who would think that the romance between Rosalind and the over-serious, gullible Orlando (Tony Roach), writer of bad love verses, would survive much past their honeymoon?
These actors mined their lines for all they were worth. You may think you know the play, but did you realize that minutes after Rosalind met Orlando, she told Celia that she wanted to have his baby? (It’s ten lines into Act I, Scene 2.) You would if you’d seen this production, and a lot more. And the sight gags were superb. “Liberty” is, of course, one of the play’s great themes — both Rosalind and Jacques rhapsodize about it. But we were struck helpless when, at just the right moment, and for just a split second, Ms. Curran pantomimed the Statue of Liberty. For actresses playing Celia/Aliena, one of the big challenges must be figuring out what to do during the several long scenes in which the character is on-stage without any lines. In Act III, Scene 2, Ms. Curran solved the problem with a rapid-fire series of hilarious, dead-on pantomimes of Rosalind/Ganymede’s descriptions of how she was to cure Orlando of his love-madness.
Director Tony Simotes took especial care to connect the action and the dialogue, sometimes in unexpected ways. In Act II, Scene 3, for instance, Celia calls to Rosalind and Touchstone: “I pray you, bear with me; I cannot go no further.” Touchstone responds with one of the rare Elizabethan puns that still works after 400 years: “For my part, I had rather bear with you than bear you.” In this show, however, Touchstone has already come onto the stage bearing Celia on his back. Later, as the “All the world’s a stage” monologue comes to a close, Orlando helps the old, infirm Adam onto the stage just as the lines “second childishness and mere oblivion/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” are spoken.
Rare is the Shakespeare director who can resist the urge to try something “different” with a familiar play, and Mr. Simotes is apparently not such a director. The novelty in this show was the casting of the philosophic, monastic, misanthropic Jacques as a woman — and not just a woman, but a lesbian with an unrequited passion for Celia/Aliena, which she conveyed through longing glances and gestures. (Celia/Aliena rejected her overtures with an appreciative but it-can-never-be smile.) The gender of Jacques, who wore an androgynous black suit, confused the other characters as well as the audience; a bemused Touchstone (Jonathan Epstein) kept referring to Jacques as “him, or her, or whatever.”
The main thing in favor of Ms. Randolph’s casting as Jacques was that it afforded an excellent actress an chance at a role otherwise reserved for men. We surely enjoyed her intelligent, witty delivery of some of the play’s best lines. (This was the second fine performance by a woman in a man’s role that we saw this summer; the other was Seana McKenna’s Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.) It could also be said that conceiving Jacques as a lesbian in a society in which same-sex romances are beyond the pale helps to explain why Jacques is practically the only major character in As You Like It without a romantic partner. Or perhaps it could be said that the erotic attraction of Jacques to Celia served as a foil for the platonic affection between Rosalind and Celia.
On balance, though, this was a variation we could have done without — not having a woman play Jacques, but the conversion of Jacques into a lesbian. We are not of the school that insists that the literature of bygone years needs to be reinterpreted or “corrected” to reflect twenty-first century notions of sexuality.
We were very glad to see several actors we’d seen in Lenox the previous year in Richard III, including Ms. Randolph. Among the most striking feats in this show was Johnny Lee Davenport’s portrayal of both the bad Duke Frederick and his banished brother. In manner and speech, his two characters could hardly have been more contrasting; it hardly seemed possible that both the brutal Duke who banished his niece from court and the mellow, gracious Duke who welcomed Orlando to the Forest of Arden were played by the same actor. Mr. Davenport gained a spot on our list of favorite Shakespearean actors with his delivery of one of our favorite speeches in all Shakespeare: the good Duke’s ode to the pastoral life.
The star of this As You Like It was the winsome Merritt Janson, who played Rosalind as a hyper-active, quick-witted, playful bundle of sexual energy. But we are still looking for our ideal Rosalind. Ms. Janson hardly varied her tempo, and she delivered too many of her lines with the same inflections. We enjoyed Kelley Curran, as Celia/Aliena, very much, and not just for her physical comedy. And we surely hope to see Jonathan Epstein, a top-drawer veteran actor who played a superb Touchstone, in other Shakespeare roles.
Before the show, we (Emsworth and both the eldest and youngest of his three lovely, accomplished daughters) visited the former home of Shakespeare & Company at The Mount, a restored mansion that was designed and built by Edith Wharton in 1902. The Mount is only a mile or so from Shakespeare & Company’s current home at a private boys’ school. Its gardens are lovely. We couldn’t quite figure out where the plays were staged.