The sporadic ramblings of Emily C. A. Snyder - devoted to God, theatre, writing, and much randominity.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Artistic Director and Co-Founder of TURN TO FLESH PRODUCTIONS. | Author of "Nachtstürm Castle," "Niamh and the Hermit." | Playwright: "Cupid and Psyche," "Math for Actors." | Classical director and educator.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

As You Like It
Preliminary Thoughts: Performances

It's that time of year again to look towards the Summer Shakespeare show...this year, As You Like It. In this post, I'm going to talk about a few performance thoughts, from seeing various versions of the show to being in it myself.

A Disclaimer: All the recorded versions are really awful and I don't particularly recommend any of them. However....

  • Kenneth Branaugh's Version: Set bizarrely in China, this version does boast an interesting take on Jacques (Kevin Kline) as a sort of zen-priest. I do like that he seems to be played with a sad subtlety of a man attempting to right wrongs from his past, a wry observer of the world with a tender soul. The scene between he and Rosalind is perfectly staged where he comes upon her during her workday on the farm and they simply engage one another's wits.

    Celia is luminous (Romola Garai - always lovely), but I've really yet to see a bad Celia. They also take a bit of Touchstone's speech to Corin to intimate that Corin had been an imperial priest/businessman who for some dark reason gave it up. This seems mostly to be a ploy to have Corin play Martext later - but it's a strange turn that never quite goes anywhere, although it's interesting.

    Perhaps Branaugh's best contribution is that he began with a visual representation of the usurpation, rather than just telling it to us as Shakespeare does in the second scene. This is steal-worthy and WILL be stolen! Branaugh also dramatizes Orlando finding Oliver which I need to think more about how to alter/steal. Likewise, he shows Duke Ferdinand in the middle of some sort of conversion at the end; Branaugh's is inactive, mine will be active. It's a moment that resonates from Much Ado's final threat through to The Tempest's final reconciliation. I totally want to give the two dukes a moment of forgiveness.

  • Stratford Festival Version: This one is interesting insofar as it really makes the split between the courts evident. Duke Frederick and his regime are shown as being sort of Dickensian-wintery with a dash of Nazi SS-uniforms thrown in for good measure. However, the effect is that, as Mom cried out, "What the heck?!!? Isn't this supposed to be a comedy?!?!?!!?" Simply put, it's way too dark.

    However, Amiens is fabulous. He's appropriately piratical, the arrangements of the songs are lusty and good (although the deer-hunting one is still just freaking WEIRD), and he strides around the stage with the right sense of living life as he likes it. Along with him, Audrey and William/Phoebe and Silvius are given an earlier introduction, running across the stage calling out for each other just as our heroines and their fool enter the forest. It's a nice change from the winter-world prior to that scene, and makes one think of the various lovers in Midsummer's.

    Otherwise, the leads are awful, Orlando looks like he's being goosed by a cheeky fish (and then being slapped by another), and I spent most of my time rooting for this one pretty but silent guard in the usurper's court (he's VELLY pretty, with arian looks and slicked back hair and a black suit with silver buttons - fortunately, he follows the bad duke around and I've decided that I'm going to combine LeBeau and Anonymous Pretty SS man together in my version).

    Orlando's performance did help me in this: the fellow's diction was terrific, even if his acting was, asforementioned, plagued by pike. Hence, in listening to his constipated and uninspiring rhetoric, I was able to "read" the text again and realize a lot of things about Orlando - sort of Orlando point one and point two, etc. This is always a good sign. More about Orlando when I do my character post. Last, they took intermission after Orlando's sonnet, "Run, Orlando, and carve on every tree," which was sort of delightful (although it would have been more delightful were Orlando played by a fiber-eating YOUNG man). Anywho....

  • BBC Helen Mirren Version: I'm a huge Helen Mirren fan, but this production - while it has quite a few merits - still falls short. Orlando has a caterpillar growing on his upperlip and he was far behind on the day they were handing out chins. Helen Mirren, like almost every Rosalind, simply doesn't even bother doing a convincing pants role. And the COSTUMES....!?!?!?!? I'm sorry, but no one can carry off Malificent horns and an extreme empire waist and not look like a pregnant pineapple.

    However, despite the early BBC-ness of the production (weird costumes, over-enunciation at the expense of feeling, a definite difference between sound levels on outside vs. inside shoots, strange casting choices, by-the-book-or-they'll-throw-it-at-you-ness of dramatic choices), there are a few really terrific stealable things. Perhaps the one that struck me the most was the scene when Orlando goes in search of food for Adam. The energy of Orlando was just so swashbuckling over the top, when the attitude of Jacques, Duke Senior and all the other lords was so..."Quoi?" Silver foxes waiting with some surprised but languid interest at the violent fly in their midst. It's really quite endearing.

    I don't remember much else about it...but that part struck me. I don't know if it's on youtube...the other two had the full show, but this one just has Helen Mirren bits which, sorry, did NOT impress this viewer. (Oh, it had a fairly good fight between Orlando and Oliver...most of them do...but again Orlando's facial fungus detracted from the emotional impact.)

  • Lawrence Olivier's Version: I have to admit, I haven't seen past the first scene of this, even though I have it on DVD. According to my research, however, it was one of the first, if not THE first filmed Shakespeare. Certainly, Olivier's first filmed Shakespeare!

    According to my brother, Peter, who HAS suffered through it, Rosalind is so painful and speaks with a massive accent. I imagine Olivier as Orlando is a bit more tolerable. Pete says the movie also cuts out a TON of the show. This isn't surprising, since to see the early talky version of Shrew is maybe about a third of the dialogue, if that. The sets are incredible, the costumes still smack of the crazy hats those Medieval ladies loved, and at some point I should see it.

  • Longwood Players 2010: Pete and I went to Cambridge this past November to see a live version of As You Like It. I give the director props for coming up with many interesting solutions to some of the text's difficulties. Perhaps most ingenious was the way that she created one character of the "usher" who was dragged on to play ALL of the minor roles in the show to much amusement as he was dragged from part to part, thrown scripts, had his pants cut off, forced to sing, etc. It really was pretty durn clever.

    Also an interesting thought was the taking "All the world's a stage" and having the actors sit among the audience and then walk up to the stage to take their costumes and play the scenes. This was pretty cool...except that the director didn't seem to know how to get OUT of this conceit once she'd begun. The costumes were clever and gorgeous and indicative - e.g., wearing bustles over jeans rather than skirts. However, the director has the actors put on their clothes when they went on the stage (taking up about the first third of a scene just putting on their costumes - or more time as the play progressed and they had more clothes to put on!)...but then having them take OFF their costumes when they left (so the last third of the scene was them taking off their costumes and hanging them up and talking. Again, as the costumes grew more intricate in the woods and the scenes grew shorter, there was pretty much NO blocking whatsoever, much to the detriment of the plot and the pacing).

    Rosalind was useless, Celia was good, Oliver was not too shabby and should have played Orlando (as many of these productions feel), Jacques was terribly urbane which I liked although his scenes with Duke Senior were full of great bile which while justified in part by the text seemed too extreme for the moment. Touchstone was wonderful and really made his odd scene with William make sense (e.g., that he's fighting this poor hapless guy just to impress Audrey, and that in some ways it's his way of embracing the pastoral life by dirtying his hands - that, and the usher played William).

    But at the center of it all, once again, Rosalind wasn't mannish enough or conflicted enough or witty and magical and wry and everything enough...she was just there. And her chemistry with Orlando was non-existent, and Orlando was nearly non-existent. I feel like there was one bit of blocking in one of their wooing scenes that was cute...but I can't for the life of me remember what it was or whether I was just redirecting in my brain. Like I do.

    The best part was probably the color scheme, which was warm purple, orange and red in many different colorful patterns and a general late-Victorian feel. They also had a running gag of taking out ALL the songs (of which there are many) through various cute means, except for the last time when the poor battered usher suddenly broke into full voice. It's absolutely stealable...but not for this production.


    But what IS stealable is this moment at the beginning of the scene between Corin and Touchstone - the City Mouse/Country Mouse scene. It began in utter silence as Corin leaned on his staff and gazed happily, peacefully and contentedly out at his invisible sheep...while Touchstone held his shepherd's crook disdainfully, and gazed with horror at the abyss of eternity at the invisible sheep. Corin sighs deeply and Touchstone erupts in his diatribe against country living. Fabulous. I'm taking it.

    (Minorly, they also made a point of both times Atalanta's heels/better part are mentioned - the first to go "Quoi?" to it so the audience marks it, and the second time to go "Aaaah" at it to make the audience understand. I'll take that too! What I won't be taking is the dance at the end that featured each couple so we thought it was bows...and then they did bows. No matter who you are, you don't get double bows!)

  • Shakespeare on the Common Version: My fellow Emersonians tore this show a new one, and there were certain things to tear. Rosalind made a STAB at acting manly with her body but her voice and mannerisms were all girly. Orlando (guess what?) was there. Congrats to him. Celia (quelle surprise) was fun - a bit TOO girly for my tastes, but a delight to watch. Everyone else did the things they were supposed to. Tra la. And at the end, when the random Jacques de Bois shows up (as a handglider, obvs.), it's weird but by that time you're thinking, what the heck? Bring it on.

    What this production did get right, though, was Touchstone, who gave the only rendition of his Act V speech that made me laugh AND made sense that I've ever seen (I'm cutting it in ours and putting back in "All the world's a stage" - something has to go there b/c the leads are changing costume); Jacques squeezed out every dry laugh his lines allowed; but best of all were the singers. Whenever they came on, which is pretty much every other scene, making the play feel like Elizabethan Vaudeville, they brought the show to life. They were like a wandering gypsy band that were TOTALLY living as they liked it, with fabulous arrangements that made me want to dance (except I didn't. Silly Emily).

    I don't recall much more than that. Rosalind and Orlando made a go of it at falling in love with each other, and the director was at least cognizant of the fact that Orlando sees a boy when he's wooing Rosalind and is therefore somewhat weirded out by his own confusion to some comic effect, but Rosalind was so clearly feminine that Orlando (who was middling) had to work extra hard and the sparks just never really flew. It wasn't as bad as many Romeo and Juliet's I've seen, but the singers definitely won the show for me.

  • 2000 RSC Production: This is the one I saw in Stratford-upon-Avon aaaaaaaaaaaaaall those years ago with the infamous 1970's bathroom flowers scrim that descended upon the purposefully discordant ex-Rent refugee singers and a few actors that caused me to involuntarily throw up my hands in front of my face and cringe in my seat with one leg up like a shield and actually whisper, "Noooooooooooooooooooooo!" Rosalind had the world's raspiest voice, like she'd been chain-smoking since the womb; the director thought it would be fun to make Audrey a butter-churning whore, even while the text completely is against him; and they kept in the stag song which became some sort of red-washed ecstasy dreamchild from Hair. No wonder most of our party left before the second act.

    However, some really good things: Rosalind and Orlando were aware of their gender issues and there was much fun good blocking during their wooing scene. I don't remember most of it, but it was all very child-like and involved a lot of floorwork and lunging, like a kid's version of playing tag in the living room on Saturday morning. Celia was, as always, a magnificent joy to watch (in this case played by an actress who was also tearing it up on the next door stage as a teeny part in Henry IV - I was rooting for her in both plays).

    Another thing that I do want to steal was that they made the difference between the "man's world" of the Act I court and the "feminine world" of the rest of the play's forest very sharp. The color palate in the first was entirely black and white and the clothes were restricting. While when they went into the forest everything became more Hobbit-y and earthen-toned.

    But it is late and I must go to bed! Next one up, what old war horses say about the show! Direct from the mouths of English folk!

    Mood: Good. But I'm going to pay for this second wind in the morning....
    Music: Laura's "I'll Sink With You" on mental repeat
    Thought: AYLI will be fun, I think.

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