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Rough weather
The Publick’s muted As You Like It

As You Like It
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Diego Arciniegas. Set by Janie E. Howland. Costumes by Christine Alger and Elena Ivanova. Lighting by Nathaniel Packard. Sound by Stanley Gurczak. With Susanne Nitter, Derek Stone Nelson, Bern Budd, Steven Barkhimer, William Church, Sarah Newhouse, Derry Woodhouse, Meghan Boeing, Elizabeth Wightman, John Beresford, Charles Parker, Billy Meleady, Ciaran Crawford, Bill Salem, Eric Hamel, and Mark Lawson. At the Publick Theatre, Wednesday through Sunday through July 28.

As You Like It is Shakespeare the way pretty much everybody likes it. Along with Much Ado About Nothing, which was written around the same time (probably 1599), this largely outdoor comedy finds the Bard in a sunny disposition, before the storm clouds of Twelfth Night and All’s Well That Ends Well had begun to gather. Court and country act as metaphors for society and solitude (a matrix Shakespeare would develop further in King Lear), as the tyrannical Duke Frederick exiles first his older brother Duke Senior and then their respective daughters, Celia and Rosalind, to the Forest of Arden.

Meanwhile, younger brother Orlando, son of Duke Senior’s late and dear friend Rowland de Boys, gets kicked out of the house by older brother Oliver (so that we have a counterpointing fraternal-relations theme). He too finds his way to Arden, where, in Adam-and-Eve fashion, Orlando and Rosalind become enamored of each other, shepherd Silvius pursues reluctant shepherdess Phebe, court clown Touchstone (reminding us that " as all is mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly " ) looks for short-term satisfaction from country wench Audrey, and Oliver, when he shows up, falls for Celia and turns over a new leaf. Duke Frederick likewise repents, and thus our heroes, their lessons in love learned (at least for the moment), return to the court in triumph.

It’s a foolproof (in part because Shakespeare does so much fooling with it) story line that doesn’t call for any " clarifying " concept, and the Publick, as is its wont with the Bard, has the good sense to present it as Will wrote it. Still, this production looked off-color from the moment I sat down and took in Janie Howland’s muted set, its brown planes (stacked at odd angles) and spindly foliage appearing more stillborn than pregnant. Apart from their failure to provide anything remotely resembling a multicolored outfit for Touchstone ( " a fool in motley, " the delighted courtier Jaques calls him), Christine Alger and Elena Ivanova satisfy with vaguely Elizabethan attire that’s standard-issue but more appropriate than the vaguely Victorian garb the Publick essayed back in 1992 (its previous production, if I remember right, of this play). The songs, among them " Under the Greenwood Tree " and " It Was a Lover and His Lass, " are rendered simply and with feeling; the piped in bits from Chopin and Holst are anachronistic but too short to obtrude.

What’s missing is any sense of bloom in the directing (by Publick artistic director Diego Arciniegas) and acting. Many sequences in the first half are staged on the rear upper level, where the actors are backlit by the fading daylight and you can’t see their expressions; this is especially unfortunate in the scene where Celia comforts the banished Rosalind and they decide to run away. And one performance after another (from actors I have liked in the past) falls short. Bill Salem’s old servant Adam doesn’t seem near old enough. John Beresford’s wrestler Charles looks ferocious, but he has a babyish voice and is rendered speechless by a mere hip throw from Orlando. Bern Budd’s Duke Senior sounds less than inspired in his " Sweet are the uses of adversity " pep talk. Derry Woodhouse’s Oliver has a distracting Irish accent; Sarah Newhouse is a mothering Celia before intermission (a gratifying original touch) but verges on shtick thereafter. William Church, after a stuttering start, is a grabber as Touchstone, though he courts gay stereotype in his explication of the " seventh cause " ; Steven Barkhimer’s fine Jaques is the master of " All the world’s a stage, " but memory tells me that in 1992 Phillip Patrone’s Touchstone and Bob Jolly’s Jaques were more masterful still.

And Susanne Nitter, who was so arresting in Súgán Theatre Company’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane and recent Publick productions of Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale, seems miscast, or at least uncomfortable, as Rosalind. Sophistication and sex appeal she has in spades, but here spontaneity is missing: she overinflects the verse, and her voice betrays her when she has to shout. Worse, she and Derek Stone Nelson as Orlando have no chemistry, as their body language attests: she’s a little stiff and he tends to slouch. It’s all summed up by Rosalind’s wedding outfit — a dowdy yellow dress (and you have to go some to make Nitter look dowdy) topped off by the kind of hat that gives Royal Ascot a bad name. Even the " out " music (Elgar?) is elegiac. The Publick’s Shakespeare is always worthwhile; I just wasn’t ready to see this warm work turned into another winter’s tale.

Issue Date: July 18 - 25, 2002
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