The Bridge Project, a seasonal company of British and American actors, was an international smash last year, and 2010 looks to be just as stellar. Their current production of As You Like It precedes The Tempest (opening mid-February) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, both closing on March 13. Sam Mendes pairs keen directing with a sense of wonder and humor, and theatrical stars from both sides of the Atlantic wow. Catherine Zuber costumes a talented cast, adding to, never distracting from, the action and emotion. Set designer Tom Piper runs a grooved, textured wall across the stage with one door in its center, narrowing the focus and increasing dramatic tension. Shuttered windows are cut into the top of the wall, allowing for light designer Paul Pyant’s blue morning glow to enter during select scenes.
Christian Camargo is a sinewy Orlando, lean-cheeked and hungry for a better life. He starts the action with high stakes; dressed in rough, shoddy boots and workman’s clothes, he growls and paces. “I will no longer endure it,” he snarls ferociously, belying the struggle of a younger sibling to get all he feels he deserves. This tension peaks when his flippant brother provokes him, Camargo strangling him until he cries uncle. Although Oliver, played by Edward Bennett, is the antagonist at this point, Bennett, dressed sharply in a fine business suit, manages to paint Orlando as a troublesome little snot who needs to be taught a lesson after all.
Ron Cephas Jones plays Charles the wrestler as a refined gentleman, trained to be equally comfortable in the ring and at the banquet table. He extends the genial olive branch, providing Oliver the opportune moment to get rid of the thorn in his side. Bennett adopts a perfectly slick veneer of humility and quivering desperation, feigning regret in forcing Charles to kill Orlando. But the wad of bills exchanged between the two heals all wounds. The fight—a lithe game of skill and physical prowess, lit solely by a swinging single-bulb lamp, with live drumming that thrums in the tense air—has a modern, Fight Club feel, packed with immediate punches of danger and primal energy. This society isn’t as advanced as it would like to think.
From beginning to end, Camargo is sweet and devoted in his adoration of Rosalind, played by Camargo’s real life wife, Juliet Rylance. Although he is agile and understands Orlando physically, Camargo sometimes appears awkward and stiff when speaking about anything but his beloved.
For Act Two and beyond, Piper removes the rough wall of civilization to reveal a bleak and cruel forest, planted deep in a beautifully merciless winter. A doorway with something like a gangplank makes a commanding entrance from back center, dividing the upper half of the stage. Snow blankets stage right and left while craggy trees bear through the winter. Pyant’s lighting adds to the dreary atmosphere, as if there were actually a few streaks of sunlight reflected off real snow. (Pyant could have easily fixed Starveling’s problem of bringing moonlight into a room in Midsummer.)
Duke Senior (Michael Thomas, also playing an emotionally twisted Duke Frederick) huddles around a charcoal chimney fire with his makeshift court, making his opening lines ring with want and suppressed bitterness. Richard Hansell as Amiens sings clear and true, but the real star of the Duke’s court and the sing-along is Jacques (Stephen Dillane). When he joins in, Dillane’s spot-on impression of Bob Dylan has the audience cracking up in appreciation through most of the song. Sporting a goatee, a light step, and heavy melancholy on his mind, Dillane shines in his spontaneity of verse, turning Jacques’s over- and misquoted lines back into spoken communication.
Michelle Beck and Juliet Rylance have giggling, slumber party, best friend chemistry that makes them bubble without being obnoxious. They are like little girls, talking across an ottoman about boys, fun, and tyrannical politics. Bouncing puns back and forth with a delightfully intellectual Touchstone (Thomas Sadoski), the girls play with language, making pancakes and mustard much more interesting than they have a right to be. Michelle Beck is a fine Celia: determined, light-hearted, and devoted to Rosalind, with a touch of no-nonsense to balance Rosalind’s infatuation. Celia is given her due moments, especially when she and Oliver take center stage with their moony eyes and instant lovesickness (Bennett’s Oliver proves to be quite a moody, “emo” lover).
Celia is strong, but Duke Frederick is right—she doesn’t captivate like Rosalind, especially in Rylance’s capable hands. Equally flattered in her courtly dark forest green cocktail dress, her smart-looking banishment outfit, and her spring beige suit, fedora, and Converse sneakers, Rylance shines in any situation. She lets herself be vulnerable to Rosalind’s entire range of emotions: anger, despair, giddiness, love—the whole gambit. The subtlety between Rosalind, Ganymede, and Ganymede playing Rosalind is remarkable, and she defines them as three wholly different parts. Rylance’s attention to the purple prose of the second half, especially Orlando’s wooing of Ganymede, makes it sound necessary instead of like chatter—even during the wedding, when everyone confirms their promises over and over.
Mendes gives us a carefully crafted play that enchants and mystifies. He tinkers to create micro and macro elements of amazement: Pyant’s eerie light scheme for Oliver’s meeting with Duke Frederick; Celia’s unusual and graphic hunting dream; the decided shift from winter and death to everything refreshed and new; Touchstone’s (almost) conversion to the country life through song, and so many other enjoyable tidbits set against a wondrous story of love transforming. We never question where the twinkling hanging lanterns or coordinated cream outfits come from for the wedding, or how Jacques de Boys knows which glen they are in, but the magic of the play is part of the transformation. Trees grow sonnets, girls are boys that are girls, and even the clown gets married. The house lights go up for Rosalind’s epilogue, and after Rylance suitably charms the audience, she returns upstage to her waiting Orlando and slams the door on this fairytale, a final gesture to a strong production.
As You Like It runs January 12 – March 13, 2010 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217. Information can be found at http://www.bam.org/.