THEATER REVIEW: This ‘concept’ does little to enhance the Bard’s charms

‘As You Like It’/ Shakespeare & Co/ Lenox, MA

TO THE SHAKESPEARE & COMPANY PRODUCTION of “As You Like It” director Tony Simotes adds his own ornaments: a mixture of brilliantly staged bits and over-the-top bits. Over-the-top suggests a lack of trust in Will’s wit, wisdom, etc. To Shakespeare’s ornaments, he also adds an actors-on-uppers physicality and “a concept.”

In the beginning, from Sandra Goldmark’s beautiful blue-gray stage with mottled blue-gray curtain, blue-gray miniature Eiffel Tower and miniature Paris buildings, one gathers (and Tony tells us in the program) that the play will be set in Paris just after the First World War.

The company starts with a lively, if conventional musical-comedy Charleston, danced by all to the period-appropriate “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.” However, it is a welcome jolt when the scene leaves the Charleston and Orlando begins speaking the words of Shakespeare. The extraneousness of “the concept” is immediately apparent. It adds nothing. It is arbitrary, irrelevant or distracting from then on. When you are in possession of actors like those at S & C, it is probably unnecessary to struggle for novelty — or to be fashionable, hip, or a propagandist for contemporary values.

For example, I’ll wager that most of Jaques’ character was obscured because the audience was busy thinking, “Is this a man or a woman?” “Is there some dimension to the play I am supposed to grasp by means of this woman-man?” Meanwhile Shakespeare’s words are streaming through undigested. The novelty is pasted on to Jaques. It shouts something about human sexuality that Shakespeare, in the rest of the play, quietly, subtly unfolds.

Fortunately, Shakespeare and Company brings along its collection of extraordinary actors. They can make almost everything work. Merritt Janson as Rosalind and Kelly Curran as Celia are to be cherished, fêted, and smothered with gratitude. For a while I thought I might like to see the casting reversed. Usually, it is pleasant to momentarily forget Rosalind/Ganymede’s real gender and believe her as a young man, which one can’t do with Janson. Her feisty, intense femininity is never quite covered no matter what pants she wears. But during the evening one comes to love it. Her imaginative delivery of every double meaning, passionate confession, and bit of worldly wisdom is stunningly true and original. Likewise one falls under the spell of Curran’s warm, sweetly grounded and beautiful Celia, who is just as real and alive in her long spans of listening as she is when she speaks.

As Rosalind’s beloved, there is Tony Roach, who brings a fresh individuality and charm to the rather dull role of Orlando.

Supporting actor stand-outs are Ryan Winkles as Silvius, appealing always, and heartbreaking in his rejected mode, Josh Aaron McCabe as Oliver, especially before his conversion to virtue, and Jennie M. Jadow as Audrey, whose energetic, sun-shiny stupidity is irresistible.

I suspect that anyone seeing this production not familiar with the play would wonder what the hell was going on. In addition to the above-mentioned distractions, how, for instance, can actor acrobatics on a metal bar in the middle of the Paris/Arden Forest — or actors popping in and out of manholes for no apparent reason — be anything but director show-boating?

I know. I know. Fiddling around with Shakespeare is all the rage and has been for decades. Also, no one would wish to stifle the vivid imagination of Tony Simotes. But, will somebody please pay this guy the big bucks to direct a big musical on Broadway! He would be sensational. For Shakespeare, keeping the Simotes genius more script-focused would be a happy discipline. (Why compete for attention with the master?)

As You Like It runs at the Founders’ Theater in Lenox through September 4. Oh yeah. See it. If you’ve forgotten the play, re-read ahead of curtain. Then see it for the playwright, the actors and the laughs. 

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