Directed by J.R. Sullivan
reviewed by John Murphy
Ah, just As You Like It. The Bard’s perennial crowd-pleaser comes to vivid, exuberant life in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2007 production, running through October in the Angus Bowmer Theater.
Visiting director J.R. Sullivan evokes the atmosphere of a 1930’s screwball comedy—imagine a Frank Capra morality tale filtered through the acerbic wit of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. The Depression-era setting is an effective concept, drawing out and clarifying thematic elements of the play. The elegant evening gowns and dashing tuxedoes of the Duke’s court contrast markedly with the Forest of Arden, a Louisiana backwater populated by flannel-wearing hobos and vagabonds. The Americana of The Grapes of Wrath and Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? informs the sets and costumes, as well as the catchy roots blues of the soundtrack composed by John Tanner.
The 1930s setting is more than a gimmick; it highlights the theme of leisure vs. labor in the play. The luxurious court-run by a Mafia-don type Duke-is loveless and sterile, whereas love flourishes in the warm and inviting Arden. ‘Love takes work’ is the idea, and Arden’s simple laborers, farmers, and hunters share a ‘live and let live’ sensibility that fosters community, hospitality, and courtship. The farmhand philosophy is best summarized by the shepherd, Corin (Jeffrey King), who observes “I earn that I eat, get what I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good,
content with my harm.” It’s the kind of home & hearth wholesomeness that characterized those classic Capra movies from the 30s: You Can’t Take it with You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
I hope the OSF will bring Sullivan back in the future – his comic touch is light and sure, but it’s the humanistic warmth (familiar to Capra fans) that really sets this production apart. Though Jaques’ ‘Seven Ages of Man’ is the play’s most quoted passage, its reductionary cynicism (we pass into mere oblivion, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”) is at odds with this golden-hearted production, where no villain proves unredeemable, no romance remains unresolved, and no pleas for mercy go unanswered.
Sullivan’s humanism serves the cast well. Orlando, who can seem like a dim star when next to the supernova that is Rosalind, is finally her match in this production. Again, the 1930s setting works to his advantage. Here he’s the American-as-apple-pie hero, a straight-edged do-gooder whose words, though they lack Rosalind’s pinache, are heartfelt. Circa 1939 Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper would have been cast in the part. As incarnated by the prodigiously talented Danforth Comins (his commanding Richmond in 2005’s Richard III announced the arrival of a new leading man), Orlando’s sincerity is a source of strength. He doesn’t possess Benedick’s sparkling wit, or Duke Orsino’s Romantic melancholy, or Petruchio’s charismatic swagger, but he is lion-hearted like the Biblical David when battling the odds in a show-stopping wrestling sequence, and sweet as a stammering Jimmy Stewart when he can’t conjure the words to tell Rosalind how much he loves her. He is that rare Shakespearean protagonist—a man uncomfortable expressing himself through language. He clams up around Rosalind and composes rubbish poetry when he tries to put pen-to-paper. His odes in honor of his paramour’s grace and beauty “abuse” the trees of the forest and make rich fodder for Touchstone’s ready wit.
Orlando is not a man of letters, he is a man of action, always doing something noble—whether defeating a Goliath in the ring, demanding at knifepoint a supper for his aged companion, Adam, or rescuing his estranged brother from a snake and then a lion. With energy and conviction, Comins makes Orlando’s squareness a strength instead of a liability. The audience wants to see this noble-hearted character succeed. As further testimony to Comins’ acting prowess, my sister, who played Rosalind in her high school’s production of As You Like It, observed that she wouldn’t have had to do much acting had Comins been her Orlando — the panting and the swooning would all have come naturally.
If Orlando is the square-jawed hero, then Rosalind is one of those incandescent heroines whose wit is as sharp as her cheekbones. Circa 1939, Katherine Hepburn would’ve been cast (she did in fact play Rosalind on stage). Miriam Laube’s smoky, Kathleen Turner-esque voice is softened by the unabashedly girlish glee she displays whenever Orlando enters her orbit, like a cheerleader with a crush on the quarterback. As written, Rosalind could never be less than beguiling, but Ms. Laube brings an element of infectious joie de vivre to the role, as if Rosalind is so bursting with life that she sometimes can’t help but dance or spontaneously burst into song. It’s a charming, physically expressive performance; though with her husky voice and dancer’s limbs, I’d love to see Laube sink her teeth into a femme fatale like Lady Macbeth.
It’s a testament to the all-around excellence of the cast that Rosalind doesn’t walk away with the show, as she is wont to do when her cast mates aren’t on their A-game. Fortunately for the audience, this As You Like It features a rich array of comic performances, both high and low.
David Kelly rises below vulgarity as the motley fool, Touchstone. His every entrance inspires an instant smile. Delivering his lines like a horny Nathan Lane doing a vaudeville act, Kelly wrings the text for every last bit of comedic juice. In the process he confirms the old truism about Shakespeare: if it sounds dirty, it probably is. Kelly has a rare gift for making the knottiest of Shakespeare’s lines sound like the naughtiest. Sarah Rutan and Juan Rivera LeBron also mine for comic gold in the Phebe/Silvius subplot and hit the payload; both are uproariously funny.
Robert Sicular expertly interprets Jaques, the dour Eeyore of the play, as an existentialist philosopher seemingly blown in from a Parisian cafe. He’s a dark cloud in the sunny, idyllic Arden, where rogues and vagabonds and hobos and all those hard-on-their-luck come to live off the land in a community of like-minded folk. Like a discordant note in a piece of music, Monsieur Melancholy adds just a pinch of pessimism, lending gravity to one of the Bard’s fluffiest comedies. “All the world’s a stage,” he reminds us, “and all the men and women merely players.” Jaques’ lines are only a hop, skip, and a jump from Macbeth’s “poor player that struts and frets about the stage and then is heard no more.”
But whereas the brutality and savagery of Macbeth confirms its protagonist’s nihilistic worldview, Jaques remains an anomaly in the Forest of Arden, a magical place where lovers chance to meet, old enmities are buried, estranged brothers reunited, and every story has a happy ending.
Just As You Like It.