The Royal Shakespeare Company at the Park Avenue Armory on Saturday, August 6, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.
Shakespeare’s go-to plot device of women passing themselves off as men always requires some suspension of disbelief, but As You Like It, which features the strangest example of the ruse, requires more suspension than most. Not only does Orlando, who met and became infatuated with Rosalind when she was a lady of the court, not recognize her when she’s presenting herself as a boy named Ganymede, he also accepts Ganymede’s eccentric suggestion that he woo Ganymede as if the boy were Rosalind to prove his love for her. To be fair, Orlando is supposed to be naïve and uneducated (that is, in fact, why Rosalind is interested in correcting some of his sillier ideas about love under her guise as Ganymede), but honestly, is he blind too?
Of course this is a comedy, not naturalistic drama, and the Royal Shakespeare Company makes Rosalind’s subterfuge—and by extension her relationship with Orlando—more compelling than in any other production I’ve seen. The performances are lovely, for starters, but beyond that, the production as a whole creates a magical, increasingly optimistic mood—like sunlight slowly breaking through clouds. Under that spell, accepting the absurd premise doesn’t seem so hard, and besides, it’s worth the leap.
Directed by Michael Boyd, the RSC production begins on a stark, modernist-looking set representing the court of Duke Frederick. The lighting is blue-tinged and grim, the costumes are constricting, and the staging emphasizes the play’s darker themes: the wrestling match between Orlando and the Duke’s champion, for example, is a brutal, bloody, painfully realistic-looking affair. But after Rosalind, her cousin Celia, and the fool Touchstone escape into the Forest of Arden, things start to change. The stage is gradually deconstructed: panels in the back wall come down to reveal greenery, and the floor is dismantled in spots to make way for wilderness. The light softens and brightens, the costumes are loosened and made more casual, and the staging becomes more playful, with musical numbers and pratfalls and lines of poetry hanging from the theater balconies.
There’s nothing particularly innovative about using such theatrical devices to depict abstractly the transition from repressive civilization to an unfettered sylvan idyll, but this As You Like It deploys the effect beautifully. (It actually reminded me of a similarly styled Midsummer Night’s Dream I saw the RSC do in 1999, and when I checked my journal, I realized it had been directed by none other than Michael Boyd, which delights me. I guess he’s sticking with what works.) The staging gracefully dramatizes the characters’ journeys and quietly invites the audience to share in that, subtly chipping away at the fourth wall, as well, expanding the “stage” to include areas where the audience sits and making Rosalind’s epilogue, delivered directly to the audience, a true benediction.
One result of this is to make the dour Jaques (played by Forbes Masson, with an appealing falsetto singing voice) look rather absurd. While the production is lightening, he is stuck in his melancholy and pessimism, with gothy black eyeliner and a markedly uptight demeanor. To me, this was a welcome development. Jaques’s famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue, while indeed hauntingly poetic, is a ridiculously lopsided, gloomy view of human existence, and too many productions handle it with straight-faced solemnity, as though Jaques is delivering something brilliant and profound. I like the way this production quietly undermines the man, not dismissing him entirely but perhaps suggesting that he doesn’t have all the answers.
My favorite scenes, though, were between Orlando (Jonjo O’Neill) and Rosalind/Ganymede (Katy Stephens). As staged in this production, their banter is never just verbal. Rosalind encroaches on Orlando’s physical space, flirting with him, teasing him, until she suddenly remembers herself or Orlando suddenly flinches and backs off, confused. They act like they’re playing a frat-boy game of chicken, for which Orlando doesn’t know all the rules, and it’s bizarre but hilarious. Rosalind is never quite as in control of the situation as she thinks she is, and Orlando seems to get vague glimmers that there’s something else at work here, something he’s not getting. O’Neill and Stephens play the scenes as though they’re in an amusingly muddled sex comedy, and even if it isn’t quite believable from a rational point of view, it makes a certain emotional sense. The romance shines through the nonsense.