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As You Like It

All the Stage Is a World

Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, November 5, 2014, G–106&107 (center stalls)
Directed by Michael Attenborough

Rosalind in green jacket, blue scarfe, and coruroy breen billed gap, Celia in white dress and purple floppy hate with a circle of roses on the crown, and touchestown in red Shriners hat and pinstriped suit hide behind luggage, the curtains of Arden in the background.
From left, Rosalind disguised as Ganymede (Zoë Waites), Celia disguised as Aliena (Adina Verson), and Touchstone (Andrew Weems) arrive in the Forest of Arden in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of William Shakespeare's As You Like It. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

It's a shock—and, frankly, a pleasant one—to walk into the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Lansburgh Theatre and see a bare wood stage for William Shakespeare's As You Like It. The set, designed by Jonathan Fensom and subtly enhanced by Robert Wierzel's lighting design, remains simple when the action moves to the Forest of Arden, represented by low curtains splashed with green and brown paint drawn across the stage on clotheslines.

Under Michael Attenborough's direction, it's the actors who create a vivid world of court and country by relying on Shakespeare's language and their own prodigious talents. The result is a play that snuggles up to us like a contented cat as we dreamily gaze into the fire. The wow! is in the realization of how happily we've passed our time, and the audience's sustained applause at play's end says, "Thank you! That was lovely."

Michael Attenborough is the son of Oscar–winning auteur Lord Richard Attenborough, who died just weeks before Michael began rehearsing As You Like It. The son, who calls his father his hero, has been awarded his own CBE from Queen Elizabeth for his mountain of work in the British theater, including 12 years as principal associate director at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the past 11 years staging several landmark productions as artistic director of the Almeida Theatre in London. He recently stepped down from the Almeida post to concentrate on directing the Shakespeare he loves so well.

His As You Like It does have conceptual undertones. Fensom dresses the courtiers in late 1920s business suits and the rustics as Okies. The banished lords thereby resemble newly-made hoboes gathered around a small fire with a pot of coffee to keep warm, economic disenfranchisement serving as the visual metaphor for the play's political banishments. Rosalind and Celia dress more like antebellum belles at the ball in single-color hoopskirts so large that when they sit on the floor their dresses spread out across the stage like satin sheets. Attenborough inserts a brief scene of Rosalind (Zoë Waites) undressing as she prepares to disguise herself as Ganymede, and as her girdle comes off she spreads her arms in freedom. Helping Rosalind undress is a woman, in a simple brown and yellow dress, who shows up at various times throughout the play looking tenderly at Orlando and Rosalind as they pause in meditation during and between scenes. This woman (Te'La Curtis Lee) turns out to be Hymen, the "goddess of marriage," overseeing the weave of fate being spun that will bind Rosalind and Orlando together in the end.

Hyman's early participation may be Attenborough's way of glossing over the character's bizarre appearance in Shakespeare's sloppy ending for this play (Attenborough also gets rid of the third de Boys brother illogically showing up in the last scene and subs in Le Beau, sharply played by Joel David Santner, to report on Duke Frederick's planned invasion and reformation). But until we learn her true identity, Lee's Hymen seems little more than hired help hanging around on stage. Overall, though, Attenborough's simple visuals and direction render a rich reading of Shakespeare's text.

Rosalind freeing herself from her girdle represents a woman casting off the restrictions society places on her not only as a woman but also as a princess—indeed, the daughter of a banished duke remaining in court only as long as the usurping duke tolerates her presence. She finds both girdle and court prisons of her true spirit. In their first appearance, Rosalind and Celia (Adina Verson) decide to "devise sports," settling on "mocking the good housewife Fortune from her wheel, that her gifts may henceforth be bestowed equally." Ooooh, party on down, girls! Celia's suggestion has thematic purpose, I know—and how gifts of human nature are "bestowed equally" is a key theme in this production—but compare that sport with those that come later. And I'm not talking about the brutal wrestling bout, deemed not "sport for ladies" but they watch anyway (with Waites' Rosalind willing Orlando to victory). How's this for sport: disguise yourself as a man, play-act being Orlando's girlfriend—though, you really are his girlfriend—and tease him unmercifully, albeit obliquely. Oh, more sport: berate Phoebe about her churlish manner toward Silvius, who dotes on her, and when she falls in lust with you, thinking you're a man, goad her through Silvius. Once in Arden, Rosalind's not playing with dolls anymore, let alone imagery.

The whole play thumbs its nose at fate and fortune, and this surfaces with particular keenness in how this production juxtaposes the pairs of kin. The only outward difference between Orlando (Andrew Veenstra) and his oldest brother Oliver (Gregory Wooddell) is that Oliver is a slightly nattier dresser because he can afford to be. Of course, inwardly they are polar opposites. As Oliver describes his younger brother as "gentle, never schooled and yet learnéd, full of noble device," he is listing qualities he himself doesn't have. Though the differences between kin are mostly internal, they are most noticeable when reflected by the people they associate with. Oliver admits that Orlando is "of all sorts enchantingly beloved, and indeed so much in the heart of the world, and especially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprised." In Wooddell's playing, this drives Oliver's jealousy as he chooses to rest on the fate handed him—after all, it's easier to murder your brother than it is to emulate him—while Orlando doggedly pursues a fate of his own making.

Similarly, the two cousins could be twins despite the reported differences in their heights (even Shakespeare gets his own report wrong: Celia is described as the taller when Orlando asks which woman is Duke Frederick's daughter, but in the next scene Rosalind calls herself "more than common tall"). Yet, Duke Frederick, as part justification for his banishment of Rosalind, tells Celia, "thou wilt show more bright and seem more virtuous when [Rosalind] is gone." Duke Frederick himself knows what it is to be ill-compared to a brother. He may appreciate confiscating the estates of the "merry lords" who followed Duke Senior into exile, but their fleeing galls him enough that he soon raises a power to vanquish them all. The brother dukes are so much alike in outward appearance in this production that Timothy D. Stickney plays both. As Duke Senior he speaks in a voice of soft power, encouraging and moving with an easy gait. Scene done, Stickney remains on stage and dons a yellow overcoat and a posture of perpetual cramps to play Duke Frederick, speaking with an angry clip and delivering every line with a threatening reverb.

Attenborough's textual cuts seem mostly for the purposes of economy (the production clocks in at about three hours with a 15-minute intermission), though some fun matter falls victim to the delete key. Ganymede's opening riff with Orlando on time traveling "in divers paces with divers persons" has been trimmed to only one of the four examples. Likewise, the "What 'tis to love" sequence with Rosalind, Silvius, Phoebe, and Orlando has been knocked back to one round instead of four (losing that routine was the evening's only disappointment for me). Also noticeably missing is Rosalind's description to Celia of meeting her father in the forest, a cut I deem palatable merely because Rosalind's behavior toward her father, as Rosalind herself describes it, is so unpalatable.

What Attenborough gives us in a subtle piece of stage business is more noteworthy. After Oliver reports on Orlando's wounding by the lion and Rosalind faints, Oliver hefts her to her feet and discovers that Ganymede is a rather well-endowed boy. Veenstra's acting in his next scene with Rosalind intimates that Oliver had told his brother his discovery, and in Veenstra's behavior I sense that his Orlando even suspects that Ganymede is really Rosalind.

None of this trips up the play's narration or feel-good vibe because at the center of this production is a Rosalind carrying an aura of fairy dust about her. Waites has been Attenborough's leading lady in several of his directorial efforts, and her Rosalind in this As You Like It—from her remarkably nimble skills with the verse to her detailed take on the character—proves Attenborough a wise caster. Her Rosalind moves with casual grace in the court scenes, yet you sense an inner id itching to break through the facade. As Ganymede, she moves with a graceful casualness, and as she sets her id free, even she seems surprised at how it behaves.

So is Verson's Celia. Peering over the Arden curtains, she watches with increasing bewilderment as her cousin punks Orlando and wonders just how far Rosalind will go with her charade (all the way to a faux wedding and face-planting kiss, as it turns out). Through Verson's physical acting, we also see the story of both Celia and her father unfold. Primly proper, she angrily chastises Touchstone (Andrew Weems) for merely hinting an insult toward one of her father's friends. Seeing Duke Frederick's reaction to Orlando's identity, however, Verson displays a hushed, uncertain posture. When Frederick storms in decreeing his banishment of Rosalind, Verson's Celia appears to be on the verge of fainting. But she hardens as Frederick continues his rant, and though she does sound foolish (his words) standing up for her cousin, Verson nevertheless shows a Celia growing determinedly stronger. By the time father leaves the room, daughter has resolved to leave his life.

If Rosalind is the centerpiece casting, it's wise to get an Orlando capable of creating a pair of equals, and Attenborough gets that in Veenstra. Young, vibrant, handsome, and, when he takes his shirt off, an obvious source for palpitations in Rosalind, Veenstra brings an honest intensity to his lines. "The spirit of my father grows strong in me," he tells Oliver in the opening scene, and it's an inner fortitude we can see in Veenstra's performance the rest of the way. His meeting Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's great comic moments, from the princess cheering him on in his wrestling match and then coming on to him with a barely concealed purpose to Orlando going totally tongue-tied. The scene is a pivotal point in the play's plot, but Veenstra makes it a pivotal point in his portrayal of Orlando, too. "Thus must I from the smoke into the smother, from tyrant duke unto a tyrant brother," he says in what would typically be an ending couplet for the scene. Shakespeare, though, gives Orlando one more half-line—"But heavenly Rosalind!"—and Veenstra says it not with romantic pining but as a state of grace that becomes his lifeblood. A beautiful princess loves him, and he'll always have that even if he never sees her again. His brother plots to kill him, he has to flee to Arden, he ends up carrying Adam (Jeff Brooks showing such sweet affection along with fealty for Orlando), and he becomes a refugee, but you know what? That hot Rosalind gave him her necklace, and it serves him now as his pacemaker. How often in my darkest days and defeated moments I've stood on the single plank that I somehow won my Sarah's love, and that gives me immeasurable worth no one else can diminish. To the end—when his infinite hope turns to real faith in Ganymede—Orlando's love for and from Rosalind is the anchor of his existence.

Jaques stands in the center, talking, with two men sitting on the ground and one on a box behind him to his right, another man sitting on a box behind him to his left, the Duke standing in the back and another man sitting on the ground to Jaques left, with the curtains of Arden across the back of the stage, and a blanket spread out on the floor with a coffeepot in the center.
All the world is a stage for Jaques (Derek Smith, center) as Duke Senior (Timothy D. Stickney, standing in the back) and other exiled lords listen: from left, Matthew Schleigh, Nathan Winkelstein, Todd Scofield, Theodore Snead, and Luis Alberto Gonzalez in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of As You Like It. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Rosalind and Orlando aren't the only ones smitten with each other. Jaques seems to be, too. Cane in hand, overcoat draped over his shoulders like a cape, his three-piece suit—complete with red pocket square matching his tie—perfectly pressed despite his hobo existence in Arden, Derek Smith gives Jaques a sophistication that's both natural and affected. All the world's his stage and he its greatest star. He appears to be angling for an opening with the handsome Orlando as they stroll through the woods together. Rebuffed, he later lights on the "pretty youth" Ganymede with hopeful intensity. Orlando's appearance prompts one of the canon's best jokes as Jaques says, "Nay, then, God buy you, an you talk in blank verse," but as this line comes after Orlando greets the supposed Ganymede with "Good day and happiness, dear Rosalind!" Smith pauses with a look of surprise and annoyance and then defeat before he speaks his line, creating a moment of multiple comic layers.

Smith likewise makes the famous seven ages of man speech a uniquely Jaques moment, grabbing the spotlight from Duke Senior and rambling off extempore this philosophical gem. He knows he's on a roll, and with each age he stretches the allegory further and amps up the gravity in degrees until he reaches the great climax, loading up his favorite word and firing it four times: "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." Even then he appears to be contemplating an eighth stage, but he is interrupted by Orlando carrying in Adam.

In such ways does Attenborough and his cast use Shakespeare's lines as the building blocks for their characters and As You Like It's thematic resonance. On a bare stage with curtains for a forest, this is real-world Shakespeare. Wow!

Eric Minton
November 13, 2014

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