“TONGUES IN TREES, BOOKS IN THE RUNNING BROOKS”
In order to make me laugh, a Shakespeare comedy must be well-cast. This man’s musings on the darker territories of the heart have never been exceeded in 400 years; nobody has come up with a better picture of human frailty than Macbeth and Lear, and if you can name a tragedian who has so much as equaled Hamlet, his name will be new to me. But in the field of comedy, I respectfully submit that William Shakespeare can be matched by a mash-up of Edward Lear and the Three Stooges. In fact, that clam in the soup, spitting in Curly’s face, makes me laugh harder than all the fart- and dick-jokes and all the puns in all the Bard’s output. (And I’m far from saying that the Three Stooges represent some kind of comic apex, but when Curly empties his revolver into the soup, well, that’s just good writing.)
But a good actor can pull comedy out of the darkest hell, and Kenn Sabberton‘s production of As You Like It is stocked with actors who can dance rings around the precious verbiage of Shakespeare’s dated jibes. And while this play features the other faults of many an Elizabethan comedy – a structure top-heavy with set-up and light on resolution; redundant storylines and unnecessary foils; insupportable plot contrivances; sudden, convenient character conversion; and an untiring fascination with cross-dressing – it also has that other thing Shakespeare tends to offer: a wealth of gorgeous language that, when it’s not trying to be funny, ruminates with bold wisdom on the art and practice of human existence, that biggest joke of all.
If you threw away all the Shakespeare plays in which women dress up like men, you’d lose among other gems Merchant’s “Hath not a Jew eyes,” Twelfth Night’s “If music be the food of love, play on,” and As You Like It‘s most famous contribution, “All the world’s a stage.” So despite the evolution of comedy over the ensuing centuries, and Samuel Johnson’s contention that As You Like It marks a rather low point in the Canon, there’s great and valuable stuff in here. Another service of these frequently annoying plays is that they tend to feature strong, brilliant female characters that give the lie to the Shakespeare-as-misogynist myth born from agenda-driven misreadings of Taming of the Shrew et al.
The tale tells of noble Rosalind (the faultless Tessa Thompson), banished from her uncle Frederick’s (Michael Dorn) court like her father Senior (Mr. Dorn, again) before her, and wandering Arden Forest (the Japanese Garden) followed by her love Orlando (an adorably virile Peter Cambor). This production turns an argument among nobility into a kind of class war. This isn’t an arbitrary gesture; it’s somewhat inspired by the text, since Orlando has been denied a gentleman’s education by his older brother Oliver (Andrew Schwartz) and forced to live as a peasant. But this choice, and the one to turn the Foresters (political exiles living in the woods) into recognizably modern homeless people (costumes by Holly Poe Durbin), are no particular gain or loss to the show. In fact, none of the technical choices like set (despite Gary Wissann‘s credit, beyond a well-designed stage and a removable curtain there really isn’t one) or tone (an uncomfortable mix of sobriety and ridiculousness – but that’s the play as much as Mr. Sabberton) make much difference. It’s all about the actors.
That the actors have more to do in the second half (intermission comes neatly between acts two and three) is, again, less Mr. Sabberton’s fault than his author’s. The director manages to stage a good deal of interest in the early scenes, including Shann Dornhecker‘s excellent wrestling match (between Orlando and McKinley Belcher III‘s Charles). And Mr. Dorn’s performance of the two Dukes is much more committed as the ruthless Frederick, highlighted in the first half, than as the mild Senior, who appears later. But it’s after dark, following intermission in this lovely outdoor setting, that this show blooms.
Ms. Thompson’s tongue did not trip once in a long night’s execution of what must be among the most intricate speeches in literature; Rosalind must after all find her father while dressed as a boy to be wooed by her lover and deflect a girl’s love toward the hand of another, and all that’s no easy thing to explain, but she does. The language comes from her as gracefully as her movements, which always please and always suit the action: sometimes she walks as a woman heartbroken and outcast, sometimes as a woman in love, sometimes as a woman in love posing as a man in mockery of a woman in love. So yes, there’s one more benefit of this obsession with transvestism: it gives an actor a juicy lot to do. Ms. Thompson’s comic timing, especially in her scenes with the delightfully physical Lindsay Rae Taylor (as Celia) and with the equally versatile Mr. Cambor, makes this a show that one who likes actors would hate to miss.
Many of the performances here are by actors double- and quadruple-cast, such as Tony Abatemarco, who plays a sophisticated old man, a young lover, a yokel shepherd and a smooth-talking priest with aplomb, at one point turning from hick to courtier before our eyes. Then there’s the absurdly talented Brian Joseph who, perhaps feeling himself insufficiently employed as a French fop and a drunken clerk and a strolling guitarist of enormous skill, also insists on serving as the show’s music director. Mr. Belcher, so perfectly annoying as the self-aggrandizing wrestler, returns as an endearing rustic and, at the obligatory end-of-comedy multiple-wedding, plays saxophone while dancing to Gabriella Rhodeen‘s pleasingly brisk and brief choreography.
The play’s two primary comic commentators, Rosalind’s clownish servant Touchstone (John Lavelle) and Duke Senior’s buzz-kill buddy Jacques (Diane Venora), both threaten to steal this show and yet do not. This is very nice, and says a lot about the cast, because no one should steal a show with this many actors doing this much good work. And in fact, despite Mr. Lavelle’s many gifts as a dancing fool, and Ms. Venora’s inimitable way with a line like “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs,” nobody could have stolen this production’s third through fifth acts. There is simply too much of a good thing going on here for that to be possible.
photos by Ed Krieger
As You Like It
Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles at The Japanese Garden of the VA in West Los Angeles
scheduled to end on July 29, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.shakespearecenter.org