Tuesday, November 4, 2014

As You Like It Theatre Review

Zoƫ Waites, Adina Verson and Andrew Weems (r) (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Wish I Could Like It

Perhaps this is one of those instances, when a more seasoned theatre critic could "see the forest for the trees." Me? I'm simple. Entertain me, and I'm happy. Bore me, and... Well, you've probably read enough of my reviews to know where that gets you. As You Like It, directed by the venerable Michael Attenborough opened the Shakespeare Theatre Company's eagerly anticipated new season last night with mixed results... moments of grandeur (namely Timothy D. Stickney) followed (and sadly overwhelmed) by a number of dull characters, listless performances and one of the barest sets I've seen in a long while.

To be fair, As You Like It is one of my least favorite works by William Shakespeare. It ends (spoiler alert) in predictable Shakespeare fashion, where everyone gets paired off and married. As if multiple cases of wedded bliss could offset more than two hours of relative doom and gloom. After a stirring opening where brothers Orlando (Andrew Veenstra) and Oliver (Gregory Wooddell) do battle, with the help of a third party wrestler (Charles, performed most capably by the physically impressive Ian Bedford) As You Like It escapes descends into a bleak forest, where the aforementioned boredom takes hold.

In a nutshell, As You Like It appears to be all about banishment and love. Two strange bedfellows, if you ask me; but who am I, to argue with the Bard of Avon? Shakespeare (and in turn, Attenborough) nails the former (almost everyone in the play gets kicked into, or flees towards the Forest of Arden) but misses wildly on the latter. In fact, although clearly intended, I saw little evidence of comedy or romance throughout the almost three hour runtime. I couldn't help but notice the same handful of people (the kind you wouldn't want to get stuck talking to, at a party) laughing heartily at lines that were witty at best... snooty at worst. Either way, I didn't laugh once. As for romance, I struggled to find anything remotely passionate (outside of a brother's betrayal.)

Given that As You Like It is one of Shakespeare's most female-friendly plays, the first half (or third... intermission hit after just more than an hour) is conspicuously light on females. Attenborough-favorite Waites comes on strong later on; but by then, she's in disguise as a man. Not exactly Romeo and Juliet, is it? Try as they might, I just couldn't buy into Orlando and Rosalind as "an item." Adina Verson looks the part as Rosalind's cousin (and best pal) Celia, but delivers most of her lines with little-to-no pizazz.

On the other hand, Derek Smith dominates the stage as Jacques; but unlike his wonderful performance in last year's Much Ado About Nothing, his character appears content at being melancholy and pompous. He dances back and forth (complete with flowing scarf) across the barren stage/forest, pontificating to a group of depression-era schleppers. Even Shakespeare's famous "All the world's a stage" speech goes down with barely a whimper.

As for positives, Veenstra brings a strong, youthful energy that is otherwise woefully underrepresented (young people go to the theater too.) Jeff Brooks does a fine job as Orlando's servant Adam, who oddly ponies up his life savings (500 crowns) to continue a life of servitude (talk about job loyalty!) Why he does this, is a mystery to me; but when he cries out to Orlando, 'Why are you so virtuous? Why are you so loved?' you kinda get an idea of where he's coming from.

Best of all, Stickney dazzles in the dual role of Duke Frederick and Senior. His booming voice commands your attention throughout (which is more than I can say for just about everyone else) and he oozes power with each step... even while swapping roles on stage, in full view of the audience. He's by and far, the best part of the show. Think Darth Vader, only without the cool helmet and lightsaber.

Unfortunately, most of the good will ends there. I'm not sure what set and costume designer Jonathan Fensom was going for; but As You Like It is the worse for it. This particular version of the play screams out for splashes of color and life, yet Fensom delivers none of that (just the opposite, in fact.) Intervals of music (guitar solos) pop up here and there, but aren't very good. With so much dreariness about, you really start to feel the weight of the show's 2 3/4 hours (with a 15-minute intermission.) Ideally, you'd like to shorten it by a half an hour or so.

As You Like It plays through December 14th in the cozy confines of the Lansburgh Theater. Tickets range from $20 - $110 and are available online or at the box office. Next up for STC: The Tempest (one of my favorites) at Sidney Harman Hall, opening December 2nd through January 11, 2015.

Grade: C- (Despite strong performances from Stickney & Veenstra, it's hard to get past the play's dreary tones and lackluster set design.)