Wednesday, January 27, 2010

As You Like It


By William Shakespeare. Directed by Sam Mendes. BAM Harvey Theater. Through March 13.

Critics mostly write about Sam Mendes' cold staging of the Shakespeare comedy As You Like It, but their reviews are closer to lukewarm. There aren't glowing raves or scathing pans, though some critics think the melancholy helps the production while others say it might work better when The Tempest joins the play in repertoire. Some critics praise the entire cast, while others say the Brits outshine the Americans, but nearly all pick Juliet Rylance (Rosalind) as the standout.

Backstage A
(David Sheward) The act ends with the death of Orlando's old servant Adam, an addition on Mendes' part. In the original text, the elderly retainer simply disappears after his last scene. Mendes has staged this sequence with a heartbreaking tenderness. After Stephen Dillane as Jaques delivers the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech, Alvin Epstein's Adam quietly waves goodbye to his young master and silently expires to the strains of Mark Bennett's sweetly melancholic score. This marks the passage of time and the fact that death is an inevitable part of the cycle of life, the cycle that Orlando and Rosalind are just beginning.

The New York Observer A
(Jesse Oxfeld) The actors are less well known—Thomas Sadoski, as Touchstone in As You Like It, might be the most recognizable name to American theatergoers—but their performances, and the production, are no less good. As You Like It is a charming and romantic play—if also, like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, somewhat ridiculously plotted—and it’s a joy to watch the hijinks unfold, especially on Tom Piper’s gorgeous, painterly Arden Forest set.

Talkin' Broadway A
(Matthew Murray) You have every reason to think, watching all this unfold, that Mendes has unleashed another razor-edged reconception that sucks the life and fun from one of William Shakespeare's most characteristic comedies. Not quite. By the time Mendes and his exemplary company are through, he hasn't violated tradition, but enhanced it. The second half restores the play's color and augments its vibrancy with the knowledge that for the city dwellers and countryfolk alike - all of whom are hapless in their own ways - that the dark always precedes the lark. In fact, by the time the rebels and revels have concluded, you may strain to remember exactly what seemed so off about the foray into sadness in the first place. Don't happy endings always need a bit of strife?

TheaterMania A
(Andy Propst) Having an actress who can convincingly play a young man is just one of the hurdles that directors and theatergoers face in Shakespeare's As You Like It, and in Sam Mendes' solid staging of the comedy that's playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theatre, Juliet Rylance beautifully fits the bill... Uniting the disparate plot lines is another challenge of the play and in Mendes' lucid production, they seem to fit together perfectly, thanks to the hint of hoar frost that pervades both the court sequences and those in the forest. For the former, scenic designer Tom Piper backs the action with an almost bunker-like wall and lighting designer Paul Pyant cuts the space with steep angled white light, creating a sense of a vicious totalitarian state. After the action has shifted, the forest is barren and fog-filled, though ultimately, a spring of sorts comes.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) The play may have plenty of laughs, but "As You Like It" is also a tale of separation: the gulf between parent and child, brother and brother and, most importantly, its two young lovers. And Mendes, director of such films as "American Beauty" and "Revolutionary Road," has found the darker elements in a play usually awash in sunnier production values. What softens Mendes' wintry ideas (including a forest of bare trees by set designer Tom Piper) is the warm, thoroughly entrancing presence of Juliet Rylance, who plays Rosalind. She is one of Shakespeare's most spirited heroines, and the actress is a delight, whether swooning over a surprisingly gloomy Orlando or scampering about in male drag as an adventurer named Ganymede.

Lighting & Sound America A
(David Barbour) Leaving Sam Mendes' production the other night, I realized I had never before seen As You Like It taken seriously. It was a shock, to be sure, because, over the years, I've had my fill of William Shakespeare's comedy. At times I've felt that if I had to endure one more boisterous romp through the Forest of Arden, I'd do something desperate with a carving knife. It's because, in most productions, the director hustles the audience through the play's dark early scenes, preferring to concentrate on the mistaken-identity mix-ups and cross-dressing comedy of the second half. It's a perilous decision that can result in an evening of coy and self-congratulatory antics. Shakespeare is many things, but he is never, ever cute. Thank heaven that Mendes understands this; he gives full weight to the early scenes set in a dukedom turned dictatorship.

The New York Times A-
(Charles Isherwood) Mr. Mendes’s arrestingly somber staging of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy firmly favors adversity over sweetness. The cold snap is not just a case of a British director’s perversely shoehorning shadows into a sunshiney play. For all the spirited comedy of “As You Like It,” true love arrives only after strenuous study and emotional hardship. Although at least half of the lovebirds in Shakespeare’s overstuffed aviary appear to fall in love at first sight, the play makes clear that the human heart is fickle, easily deceived, sometimes perfidious. The mettle of love must be tried and tested, and tried again, before its sweet felicities can be safely indulged.

The Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) The staging by Sam Mendes, one of the brains behind this transatlantic theater company, gets off to a glacial start that fails to find traction or pull us into Shakespeare's language. Then, when the talking literally stops, the show finds its voice and its magnetic pull. This is the moment when a lovestruck Orlando (Christian Camargo) can't bring himself to say a word to the fair Rosalind (Juliet Rylance), who's equally smitten. It's a wonderful moment that jolts the show to life.

Bloomberg News B+
(John Simon) One may have doubts about almost postmodern dress here, and about exiles in the Forest of Arden disposing over sundry costume changes, but strict realism was surely not uppermost in Shakespeare’s mind. It may be that Tom Piper’s austere castle facade for the early scenes is a trifle too forbidding, but not even Elizabeth Arden could have made the forest, which it served to hide, look prettier and more alluring. The excellent lighting designer, Paul Pyant, does wonders here, making that fine forest look truly enchanted. Catherine Zuber’s otherwise pleasant costumes have their inconsistencies: Some characters in the woods are shod, some barefoot, some successively both.

Entertainment Weekly B-
(Melissa Rose Bernardo) It takes almost two acts and about an hour for director Sam Mendes' production of As You Like It — now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 13 — to set the right tone. And though it's a comedy, the breakthrough moment comes courtesy of neither the play's cross-dressing antics nor its complex love triangles. Rather, it arrives when perma-pessimist Jaques (the divine Stephen Dillane) begins his famous monologue: ''All the world's a stage/ And all the men and women merely players.'' Though he's describing man's slow march toward death, Dillane couldn't be more dynamic.

Time Out New York C+
(David Cote) Would that the director and his ensemble had let the balmier clime buoy the pacing and performances. Rylance delivers a spunky Rosalind and Camargo is disarmingly earnest, but their wooing-school scenes are played rather too humorlessly and slow. Dillane’s drawling delivery, while dryly amusing, verges on self-indulgent. And despite shrewd direction and many pretty stage pictures, Mendes maintains too stately and somber a tone. You’d think he prefers the cold, gray time of year to hot, frisky months.

The Financial Times C-
(Brendan Lemon) He cites a passage from Ted Hughes, yoking the locations of As You Like It and The Tempest, which is the Bridge Project’s other production this year. Hughes says that “the Devil’s Island where Prospero now finds himself” was “what remained of the Forest of Arden after the holocaust of the tragedies”. Such a reading may make sense to theatre-goers watching the two plays in repertory, but for the rest of us the initial mire can seem a bit thick. Stephen Dillane, as Jacques, presides over the evening’s first half, his Eeyore-ish gloom joined to mordant line readings: his Dylan impersonation during one of the forest court’s infectious singalongs (marvellous music by Mark Bennett) detonated the largest laugh.

On Off Broadway C-
(Matt Windman) Severely out of place with everyone else is the typically excellent Thomas Sadoski, who is too high-strung and manic as Rosalind's clown Touchstone, desperately screaming his lines with a rough delivery. On the other hand, Stephen Dillane is so low-key as the melancholy Jacques, who delivers the "Seven Ages of Man" speech, that you hardly notice him. Let me stress that this is in no way a bad or even mediocre production. In fact, it's quite smart and occasionally engrossing. And I really look forward to checking out "The Tempest" next month. But at least for me, this "As You Like It" just never felt altogether dramatically convincing or emotionally moving.

Variety D+
(David Rooney) Imbalance of another kind also hobbles the production, calling into question the success of the Bridge Project's trans-Atlantic formation. Almost across the board, the British cast members are superior to their American colleagues; their characters are more robustly inhabited and their command of the language more easeful... Shortcomings among the minor players are more damaging, however, particularly Ashlie Atkinson's squawking country shrew, Phoebe, fishing for easy laughs with her contemporary finger-snapping attitude; Michelle Beck's dreary Celia; and Jenni Barber's shrill caricature as lusty wench Audrey, played like Britney Spears off her meds. Even the ever-reliable Alvin Epstein strays from the poignancy of his loyal old servant into cartoonland in his second role as the vicar Martext. The comic mugging, crass pantomime shtick and reveling rustics of act two almost make you long for a return of the earlier lugubriousness.

New York Post C
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Prime among the Brits is Juliet Rylance. To say she does Rosalind justice is an understatement: We're only in January, but it's unlikely we'll see a more insightful, more luminous performance all year. She comes up with one irresistible grace note after another, whether bursting out in girlish excitement or teaching lessons in love with witty, confident poise... And then there's the home team, which seems completely befuddled by the characters, the language -- pretty much everything having to do with the show.

Backstage A 13; Observer A 13; Talkin' Broadway A 13; TheaterMania A 13; AP A 13; Lighting & Sound America A 13; The New York Times A- 12; The Daily News B+ 11; Bloomberg News B+ 11; EW B- 9; TONY C+ 8; The Financial Times C- 6; On Off Broadway C- 6; Variety D+ 5; New York Post C 5; TOTAL: 153/15 = 10.2 (B)


Catherine said...

Fantastic survey of responses. Thanks for posting. As You Like It is a really difficult play to do well -and even when it is blessed with delicate direction, great performances, and imaginative design, that might not be enough for some (as this survey demonstrates). I've really enjoyed Mendes' work in the past so I may try to get down & see this.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Another A rating