If, as Classic Stage’s marketing suggests, these design elements are meant to produce a Jazz Age feeling, it was lost on me; nor do Mr. Schwartz’s catchy settings of Shakespeare’s lyrics help pin down the period. The general ban on fanciness seems to have banished specificity as well.
In the resulting vacuum, you can get a glimmer of what Mr. Doyle is after: a plain, vernacular presentation of the text by actors who look and sound like today. Even the adorable plot — featuring the enmity between the brothers Orlando and Oliver, the love between the cousins Rosalind and Celia, the eventual cross-romancing of the pairs — seems less important to him than the act of relating it. The opening and closing tableaux make that point, with the cast huddled around a leather-bound Shakespeare edition as if it were a family album.
Admirable as this approach may seem in the abstract, there is something stingy about it in practice. All pageantry is lost, of course, including the usual Shakespearean delights of royal-watching and stage combat. So forget about crown jewels and parades; Mr. Doyle does not even let us see the wrestling match that is a major plot point, and often a highlight, of the first act. Nor, in abjuring technical tricks, does he give us anything worth paying attention to between scenes unless you like watching an upright piano get wheeled around.
But these are superficial wounds; even the flattening of the action that naturally results from heavy cutting of the text is survivable, as the Public’s version demonstrated. The tumble of highlights can be incorporated, with a wink, into the style of the production.
The deeper problem here is what happens when there is no style, or rather when the lack of style becomes a style in itself. Musicals sometimes bear up to this treatment, and may even benefit from it, because good singers cannot help but fill their voices to the brim. The contrast between paucity and plenty, restraint and release, can be powerfully effective.
But Shakespeare’s verse is easily deflated. Yes, we want natural engagement with its sense, and no, we don’t need to have it crooned at us as if it were written for lounge lizards. But sing it must; this is language that wants lingering. “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” Duke Senior says, “which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in its head.” That’s too gorgeous to mutter or rush, as if it were flat-footed prose.
It feels wrong to blame the cast, some of whom also play instruments, for what is evidently Mr. Doyle’s doing. And at least Ellen Burstyn, in trousers as the melancholy Jaques, manages to find effective compromises in that character’s best known speeches. (She tosses off “All the world’s a stage” without throwing it away.)
Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Celia also threads the needle; she is intermittently as good as she usually is continuously. But I’m afraid the rest of the actors, who include Hannah Cabell as Rosalind and Kyle Scatliffe as Orlando, are done in by direction that seems to pull away from the text instead of leaning into it.
This leads to an “As You Like It” that perversely ignores the pleasure promised in its title, with little comedy and less poetry. Even love is too posh to pass Mr. Doyle’s admission test. Whenever would-be lovers lock eyes, we get, instead of rapture, the dinky ping of a triangle.
I grew to dread that triangle, which functions as an asterisk saying: This is where feeling would go in a production that had any.
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