Even though As You Like It is a comedy, it can be one of Shakespeare’s harder plays to enjoy. The action clusters in the first and final scenes, and nothing much really happens in the middle. The narrative lacks thrust, and the result is a potentially tedious evening. The Folger Theatre’s production, as directed by Derek Goldman, embraces the meandering nature of the play and mostly succeeds in keeping things interesting.
The plot, such as it is, unfolds with a duke’s banishment to the Forest of Arden by his usurping brother. The daughters of the dukes, Rosalind and Celia, remain at court, firm in their friendship for each other. During a sporting tournament, Rosalind meets Orlando, and it is love at first sight. Alas, Celia’s father orders Rosalind to follow her father into exile or die. Celia refuses to be parted from her cousin, and the pair hatch an escape plan. Rosalind disguises herself as a boy named Ganymede, and, along with Celia and court fool, Touchstone, they journey to the Forest of Arden. Once in the forest, where the bulk of the play takes place, the action slows down considerably. Orlando, of course, finds his way to Arden, meets the disguised Rosalind, and is encouraged to woo him/her. Romance also abounds with the introduction of several other characters. Touchstone pursues a country lass named Audrey, and Silvius, a shepherd, courts a disinterested Phebe. The various entanglements leisurely fluctuate until, quite suddenly, the banished duke is allowed home. Everyone is sorted out, learns something, and is married.
Even if nothing terribly exciting happens onstage, at least the set is eye-catching. The playful and evocative scenic design by Clint Ramos is a highlight of the evening. The court consists of a neat arrangement of cubicle-appropriate office chairs. Two sturdy columns, permanent fixtures of the Folger’s Elizabethan stage, are lit in black and white squares. The total effect is of a droll, Greco-Roman conference room. The Arden set is even more fun. The transition from the court into the forest, in fact, ranks as one of my favorite theater moments in a long time. Two humming forest dwellers bring out a series of lime green ladders and artfully place them around the stage to represent trees. Lit silhouettes of leaves slowly dot the columns, accompanied by a haunting melody. The lights and sound set just the right mood for this resolutely unrealistic yet romantic set.
Joseph Marcell is the standout of the cast. Marcell, best known as the long-suffering butler on TV’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, plays Jaques, a melancholy yet sociable member of the forest. Jaques is an observer of life rather than a participant, and yet he finds joy in his musings. Marcell is by turns dry, giddy, somber, and brooding, and he handles his ridiculously famous speech, “All the world’s a stage...” with ease and aplomb. I have always viewed Jaques as a loner among lovers, but here there are hints that he is in love with Touchstone. Goldman inserts a love ballad, sung by Jaques, near the end of the play. Although the moment is lovely, its motivation is unclear. In any case, Marcell does a marvelous job with the most interesting role of the play.
The rest of the cast is good but not outstanding. Amanda Quaid (Randy’s daughter) makes her DC debut in the lead role. She postures a little too much as Ganymede, but employs a big goofy grin to good effect as Rosalind. Miriam Silverman as her cousin Celia, and Noel Vélez as Orlando, are both just fine. Two wacky country girls, Phebe (Tonya Beckman Ross) and Audrey (Jjana Valentiner), garner a lot of laughter without going over the top. Touchstone, played by local favorite Sarah Marshall, is here played by a woman as a woman. All references to Touchstone’s gender have been switched. This certainly adds a different flavor to the Audrey/Touchstone relationship, and their straightforward courting stands in contrast to all the heterosexual antics.
I find Touchstone a little wearisome on the page, and in the flesh Marshall is a little too self-consciously kooky. There is a fair amount of singing (some in the text, some added by the director), and I particularly enjoyed the warbling of an actor (Matthew McGloin) billed only as “First Lord.” With his sweet voice and open face, he captures the spirit of Arden in his expression, and I perked up whenever he appeared.
Pacing and tone issues tarnish the production. The show runs almost three hours, and the second half, in particular, feels too long. We get bogged down by too many forays into song, dance, and bits of stage business that go nowhere. There is a long, acted-out speech given by Touchstone and the rest of the cast (you’ll know it when you see it), whose only purpose seems to be to cover Rosalind’s costume change. Another misstep is the court wrestling event, staged as a WWF spectacle complete with a large hairy man in a sparkly red cape, a booming announcer, and a video accompaniment. The whole thing comes out of nowhere and disappears into nowhere, setting the tone askew. In the same vein, the messily choreographed wedding includes a brassy song by the goddess Hymen (Kiah Victoria), and the scene just feels weird. Goldman’s direction shines more in the smaller moments. To launch the play, for example, an old man (Terrence Currier) hobbles wearily down the steps and into the audience. The moment is powerful precisely because of its intimacy.
The costumes (by Carol Bailey) are gorgeous across the board. Sometimes the dazzle lacks logic, though. I have no idea what to make of the three guards in large furry hats on stilts, and, as I’ve mentioned, the too-contemporary wrestler is bizarre. Most of the costumes shoot for timelessness, with a motley, flower-child touch sprinkled over Arden. The gender-bending in this production is profuse, as are the many forms of love (familial, romantic, heterosexual, homosexual), so the hippie clothing mostly works.
The director is a former professor of mine, and I couldn’t help but notice his continuing interest in contrasting two worlds and exploring their transformative capabilities. Goldman has tackled The Winter’s Tale and Eurydice in recent years, two other plays that also explore the differences between two worlds (Sicilia and Bohemia; the world of the living and the dead) and how such a journey can alter a person. As You Like It plays once more on this theme. Everyone learns something in the idle Forest of Arden and changes, whether they like it or not.