Roll out the red carpet, because Shakespeare’s As You Like It is all glamed up for its run at the Shakespeare Theatre—but it doesn’t look like this one’s going to be winning any Oscars.
Applying a Hollywood theme to Shakespeare’s comedy, director Maria Aitken takes audiences on a journey through Hollywood’s history, while attempting to mirror America’s history and tell the Bard’s story at the same time. In the program, Akiva Fox (Literary Associate at the Theatre) points out that the production is meant to highlight Rosalind’s exile as a way of reinventing herself, just as many of the founders of Hollywood were immigrants who assimilated into American culture. Through this lens of immigration, Aitken serpentines her production through memorable Hollywood settings that helped define America’s history.
Confused yet? Just wait.
As a refresher, As You Like It follows Rosalind and Celia through their journey into the Forest of Arden after being banished from the duchy in France in which they once resided. Rosalind disguises herself as a man and names herself Ganymede in order to travel more easily and stay hidden, and her friend Celia takes on the alias, Aliena. Rosalind and Orlando are in love, but Orlando doesn’t know that Ganymede is actually Rosalind in disguise, and thus comedy ensues as the two interact. Many other love stories play out during As You Like It, adding to the complexity and entertainment value of the show.
As You Like It is already full of disguise and confusion—it doesn’t need anymore. Aitken’s journey through Hollywood destroys the fluidity of Shakespeare’s script by forcing many costume and set changes. Despite her claim that As You Like It is a “language-drunk play,” Aitken seems to disregard the text in favor of spectacle. Beautiful costumes and intriguing sets (the most entertaining part of the production) drown the story, making it difficult for audience members to follow along. Throughout many of the set changes, the characters are transported to very different parts of America (such as going from a Native American scene to the deep South), and with these visual migrations come accent changes. Try remembering who’s who, who they’re in love with, and who they are fleeing from when their dialect, costumes and mannerisms change in each setting.
Despite the confusion, Aitken’s production is visually impressive and entertaining. With set design by Derek McLane and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, the presentation of this classic is titillating. Venturing from a stark black, white and gray opening (using silent films as inspiration), the show journeys through multiple eras and locales, from a Native American campground to a glamorous bar, and even swinging through a jungle complete with hanging branches and vines. The costumes enhance every set, sometimes paying homage to great films of times past (such as a dress for Celia straight out of Scarlett O’Hara’s closet). But because accents and costumes change so often, continuity disappears. And the settings don’t seem to bare any significance to the action on the stage. With the exception of Rosalind and Celia’s voyage to Arden (which Aitken describes as similar to the Hollywood founders’ journeys to America), the rest of the scenes seem to be chosen at random.
Michael John LaChiusa’s original score is a unique touch. The music is used during scene changes, but also during scenes to highlight specific moments, helping make the play feel more like a film. LaChiusa certainly helps audiences submerge themselves in the time periods and styles presented.
Unfortunately, between the flurry of an overflowing closet and a warehouse worth of set changes, the acting gets buried like an unsuspecting victim during a Black Friday shopping spree. Despite the reputation and talent of many of the actors, this production of As You Like It presents itself as a nightmare for the actors. How can an actor do any character work when the accent, costumes, and location change so frequently—and seemingly for no reason? Rosalind (Francesca Faridany) does hold her own in the mutant Hollywood setting, staying somewhat consistent throughout (or at least as consistent as possible considering what she’s working against). Orlando, played by the dashing John Behlmann, works well opposite Faridany, making their moments on stage pleasant, though still somewhat confusing.
There is a certain playfulness apparent in this production of As You Like It, yet this playfulness is not enough to compensate for the camouflaged storyline. Instead of concentrating on the story and script, the audience’s focus is drawn to what flashy setting and costume design will be revealed next, and thus we are sent on a scavenger hunt through Hollywood in search of Shakespeare’s true themes and meanings.
Rounding up our journey through Hollywood, As You Like It concludes with a dance number in an environment that nods at the film 42nd Street. A large staircase is wheeled in and glittery gowns are donned. The cast sings and dances, celebrating the multiple weddings and happy ending. Sparkling from top to bottom, this final scene creates a beautiful snapshot of classic Hollywood. Unfortunately for this production, there’s not much else behind the glam and glitz.
As You Like It runs November 17 – December 20 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, 601 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Information can be found at http://www.shakespearetheatre.org/.