The Shakespeare Theatre’s new production of As You Like It, the philosophizing romantic comedy set largely in a curative mystical forest, has adopted the trappings of an altogether different wood, one that no one ever accused of being good for you. (That’d be the one that starts with Holly.) The show begins ingeniously as a flickering silent film with title cards, but quickly assumes the props and types of a modern movie shoot, with boom-mic operators and cameramen and headset-wearing production assistants scurrying between scenes. We even hear Ted van Griethuysen growl “Cut!” now and again.
Director Maria Aitken was previously responsible for a terrific spoof of the seminal Alfred Hitchock thriller The 39 Steps on Broadway. (The touring version will hit DC in March.) She reapplies many of that show’s tricks here, but on inflated scale that tests her considerable ingenuity. Where The 39 Steps was a complicated, fast-moving show that felt effortless, this As You Like It is a complicated, fitfully paced shuffle wherein everyone seems to be working awfully hard. Long before its black-tie finale, it feels like watching the Oscars: You wait out the dull or baffling stretches because you know there’ll be a few bits worth talking about tomorrow.
And there are plenty: Andrew Long, inhaling tobacco via just about every device ever invented for that purpose, is a memorably jaundiced Jacques, and Barnaby Carpenter sells Oliver’s offstage conversion from villain to good guy with humility and soul. The full-on musical numbers that composer Michae John LaChiusa and choreographer Denial Pelzig have spun from the play’s songs are spry, inventive, and best of all, brief, and feature some stirring baritone vocals by James Konicek.
What tangles things up is Aitken’s surfeit of surfaces. Besides being set in the Dream Factory, the show also parades through 250 years of American history. We see immigrants arriving at in New Amsterdam in 1670, we hear Jacques unspool the “Seven Ages of Man” speech in the barefoot winter of 1778 at Valley Forge, and we squirm through a big chunk of the second half transplanted to the antebellum south. The representations of each era are drawn from period films. It’s clever in theory, but in practice, it makes the story and too many key performances feel remote and academic. It’s as though, failing to choose one setting that might illuminate the text from a fresh angle, Aitken selected a framework that would allow her to sample ten. (My vote? Do the Revolutionary War version.)
The time-travel motif is at least as intriguing as the Hollywood one, especially given the play’s idea that the rustic life ennobles us, while life at court erodes our humanity. But neither the likening of the New World to Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden nor another potential analogue — Hollywood as the venal Duke Frederick’s court — are developed enough to do anything more than distract us from the play’s emotional nucleus.
More harmful is the fact that having everyone swap out Queen Elizabeth’s English for an American Southern drawl mid-show completely upends some performances: Francesca Faridany’s Rosalind, upstaged by Miriam Silverman’s Celia in the evening’s first half, finally locates Rosalind’s spark of patient brilliance. But John Behlmann’s Orlando, so winning earlier, becomes laconic and withdrawn, at least until we get to the Jazz Age, when he’s issued a halogen smile along with his tuxedo and hair tonic.
The disguised Rosalind isn’t the only one here for whom clothes make the man.
This review appears in Friday's Examiner.
As You Like It is at the Shakespeare Theatre's Sidney Harman Hall through Dec. 20. Tickets are available here.