April 29, 2008

Like it or not, That's Love

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Shakespeare’s As You Like It is a naughty comedy full of gender-bending and bawdiness. To watch the production now playing at the Schwartz Center through May 3, however, one might think the drama’s cross-dressing acted as mere window-dressing for an otherwise almost melancholy romance.
In a pastoral play where costumes take on such import, negotiating not only the transformations between genders but the divisions between court and country, the choice of dowdy tweeds and dandified tails is telling. The emphasis of two relatively minor characters — Touchstone and Jacques — add to director Neal J. Freeman ’97’s lugubrious interpretation, as neither character ends the play in a lasting marriage.
Duke Frederick has banished his older brother, Duke Senior, along with his band of supporters to the enchanted Forest of Arden. Orlando de Boys, set-up to fail by his elder brother Oliver who likewise hates him, unexpectedly wins a wrestling match, which proves to be a match-maker between him and Duke Senior’s daughter, Rosalind.
However, before the couple has time to wrestle with their emotions, Orlando and Rosalind are both independently banished to the Forest. Rosalind dresses as the boy Ganymede and Celia goes along with her disguised as Aliena, taking in tow their trusty sidekick, Touchstone the fool. In the Forest, we meet a fourth pair of potential lovers: the plain milk-maid Phoebe who scorns the plaintive shepherd-boy Silvius. In the end, the goddess Hymen arrives and, through a series of masque-like conversions and unveilings, the would-be star-crossed lovers wed their now un-cross-dressed beloveds.
Many productions choose to camp up the goddess Hymen, explore the homosocial innuendo between Celia and Rosalind or portray the wrestling match with a kitschy flair. This production bypasses those options for a more serious tone.
Nonetheless, Freeman interestingly chose to make Touchstone a figure of ambiguous gender that reveals — then revels in — her long curly locks near the end. The spunky Carolyn Goelzer, playing Touchstone, punches her jokes in a kind of one-person Punch-and-Judy pantomime. Far from being merely a slapstick sidebar, Goelzer’s Touchstone takes on a role that oddly seethes with violence and social instability, which threatens to puncture the flimsy fairy-world of the Forest.
Similarly, the production does nothing to undercut the forlorn meditations of Jacques (J.G. Hertzler), who oddly wears a black tuxedo outfit with a dapper white scarf even though he is supposed to be one of the rustics. During his famous “All the World’s a Stage” monologue, for example, the characters succumb to Jacques’s morbid fantasy: as they all sit down to listen, the energy in the room stultifies.
Allison Buck ’09’s Rosalind, though, has decorous wit and womanly deceit to spare in a marvelously mature performance, overcoming both her frumpy debutante dress and silly paperboy knickerbockers to shine through with humor and élan. Freeman does indulge in just a touch of camp extravagance, which enlivens the play. Cotton-candy colored stuffed toys stand in for a shepherd’s sheep and goat: the two oversized animals also appear to couple off in the concluding marriage bonanza.
The musical numbers of the play, which could have provided light-hearted zip, were instead scored to sound heavy, slow and sad. Ryan Oliveira ’08 and other cast members nevertheless showcased their melodious vocal skills with violinist Jian Jimmy Liu. A violin is played throughout, casting a wistful spell over the production. Its another interesting choice, when playing with the difference between a fiddle and a violin (there is no difference except how they’re played) felt like a missed opportunity to contrast — and conflate — the idea of court and country, in a play whose mock bucolic longing so obviously presupposes a position of over-attenuated civilization.
Several receding proscenium arches frame the stage, highlighting the idea of multiple layers of reality: worlds within worlds, and each one a theater. To represent trees in the magical Forest of Arden, several metal trellises lowered onto the ground, each glittering with a bricolage of brightly colored squares and round mirrors. Perhaps the mirrors indicate the narcissism inherent in these lovers’ escapades. What could be seen on one level, as a sparkling Klimt-like erotic fantasy world, could on another be seen as a sad morality tale of ultimately ill-fated passion.
While Freeman’s production didn’t go so far as to make the shotgun weddings of the play feel like a collective suicide attempt, there was a certain somber air to this production despite the vigor and quick-witted comic timing of the cast. The production seemed to suggest that love, even — or, especially — at its most enchanted, never forgets the unavoidably melancholy knowledge that it must come to an end.