Shakespeare’s As You Like It is a loquacious pastoral comedy that follows a predictable choreographic pattern, unique within the author’s canon of Elizabethan comedies. Throughout most of the play’s short, swiftly executed scenes, the playwright allows any given pair of characters to converse with one another downstage while one or more stand upstage to watch and listen.
Unlike in Twelfth Night and Cymbeline, where Shakespeare uses the exile motif as a device to engineer the suffering and subsequent triumph of Viola and Imogen, in As You Like It the playwright employs exile as a conceit to situate his courtiers amid the shepherds and rustics in the Forest of Arden. There they ponder the vagaries of love and marriage, as well as the merits of life within a highly “civilized” court versus the advantages of a quieter existence in the bucolic environs of the forest.
In the Alley Theater’s first foray into Shakespearean comedy since Scott Schwartz directed Much Ado About Nothing in 2006, artistic director Gregory Boyd turns Shakespeare’s pastoral meditation on civilization and nature into a two-and-a-half-hour litany of sight gags and kooky sound effects. During the show’s first half, thundering drums and crashing cymbals signal every scene change (and there are many of these), presumably orchestrated to heighten the visual jokes that we, the audience, must be provided because we are assumed to be incapable of digesting the poetry of the world’s greatest playwright.
To ensure that we will find humor in all the right moments – as well as in moments where Shakespeare intended no humor at all – Boyd relies on superfluous sound effects, much as TV producers have used the dreaded laugh track since the 1950s. Boyd seems to be convinced that in 2015, in the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the United States, Shakespeare cannot be relied upon to stand on his own.
This is unfortunate, because the Alley employs a formidable group of players who have performed Shakespeare impressively under Schwartz’s past direction. James Black, a veteran actor and occasional director, is well cast as Jaques, the melancholy philosopher. With his magnificently consistent performance, he imbues his scenes in the Forest of Arden with the gravitas that Shakespeare must have envisioned. Playing Touchstone, the fool, veteran Alley artist Jeffrey Bean is equally robust, employing a deft comic touch in scenes with Audrey, the homely goatherd whom he courts.
In early scenes within Duke Frederick’s court and during the famed epilogue, Elizabeth Bunch is nicely poised as Rosalind, the play’s central, cross-dressing heroine. But disguised as the boy Ganymede, Bunch is much less inspiring, given to “sawing the air” while imparting her lessons in love to Orlando, with whom she is smitten. In the role of Orlando, Chris Hutchison has excellent moments, but I would have enjoyed seeing him interpret this role without Boyd’s ham-handed direction. Playing Rosalind’s cousin Celia, Emily Trask offers some refreshing diversion while singing “Under the Greenwood Tree,” the play’s signature ditty. Seasoned Alley actor Todd Waite lends refreshing depth and breadth to the roles of the villain Duke Frederick and the exiled Duke Ferdinand, the brother whose dukedom Frederick usurps.
No matter how hard Boyd and his cast pander to a Houston audience whom they perceive to be illiterate about all things Shakespearean, we get glimpses of the rich poetic nuance of this “talky” play. The sets and costumes, cleverly imagined to maximize the play’s Elizabethan provenance, remind us of the Alley’s serious commitment to high-quality production values. Within the milieu of Duke Frederick’s court, the men sport doublet and hose, while the women wear sixteenth-century-era gowns with stunning black and white designs of vivid stripes and diagonal patterns.
While the Alley Theatre undergoes a $46.5 million renovation to its home in downtown Houston, the company will perform all 2014-15 productions at the University of Houston’s Wortham theatre. The 565-seat theatre has a well appointed, stately lobby/reception area, and the auditorium feels hardly used. The Alley’s temporary home at UH appears to be a great choice, as the audience turnout for As You Like It on opening night appeared strong.
The Alley Theatre performs Shakespeare’s As You Like It through February 22, 2015, at the UH Wortham Theatre on the UH campus. Parking is free and located in the large student lot across from the university’s Fine Arts complex and Moores Opera Center.