Performance diary: As You Like It at BAM

January 22, 2010

January 20 – As You Like It is, strange to say, the only major Shakespeare play I’d never seen onstage before, except indirectly via David Greenspan’s nutty She Stoops to Comedy (in which he played a lesbian actress cast as Rosalind in a regional theater production). So I decided to check out The Bridge Project’s production at BAM. I’ve been a little dubious about this project, a collaboration between BAM and the Old Vic in its second year now of combining American and British actors into one company to do two classical plays in rep directed by Sam Mendes. Their first season last year got pretty good reviews, but I gave it a pass, mainly because Ethan Hawke was in the company, and he wore me out with The Coast of Utopia. Sad to say, this production confirmed my worst fears – an extremely mediocre staging with extremely undercooked performances. First of all, what a weird play, not easy to follow or fathom in the first place. So if you’re gonna do it, how about either a) having some ideas about it or b) at least making it very clear? No such luck on either front.

OK, there were a few ideas. Mendes noticed that the first half of the play is dark, violent, not funny, dramatic in a King Lear-y way, and the second half is lighter, funnier, highly comedic and entertaining. So the production design (sets by Tom Piper, costumes by Catherine Zuber) for the first half is a relentlessly drab palette of browns and blacks, shadows, bare trees for the Forest of Arden; the second half is all colors! and brightness! and fields of tall grass! The cast includes some good New York stage actors not at their best (Christian Camargo, Ron Cephas Jones, Alvin Epstein). The quirkiest role in the play is Jaques, “a melancholy gentleman” whom Mendes makes sure we associate with any number of Chekhov’s anti-heroes, Vanya or Ivanov. He’s played by Stephen Dillane, definitely a wonderful British actor (superb in the Broadway revival of The Real Thing), and when he entered, finally there was a spark of energy onstage. But neither he nor Mendes arrived at anything specific to do with Jaques. When the various characters exiled to the forest gather around the fire to sing songs, Dillane gives Jaques a Bob Dylan croak – and just in case you didn’t get it, he pulled out a harmonica and started playing it. That level of choice is about all we got. When Rosalind (unimpressively played by Juliet Rylance) gets up in drag as Ganymede, she’s dressed to look exactly like Ellen DeGeneres – which is fine if you’re going to really play with the gay implications of the cross-dressing plotline, but nope, it’s just a sight gag. Thomas Sadoski plays the clown, Touchstone, and he grabs at whatever he can get – like fixating on the fishing line that Corin is carelessly flinging around, afraid of the hook – but nothing really coheres. Ugh. I could have done without that three hours in the theater. I’d still like to see a good production of As You Like It – maybe directed by Lisa Peterson?

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