By Michael Hillyer
There is a fleeting moment, not too far into John Doyle’s stripped-down, intermission-less production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, now playing through October 22nd at the Classic Stage Company on East 13th Street, where all of one’s hopes are realized. That is when Ellen Burstyn, as Jacques, begins the speech, “All the world’s a stage,” and everything else just simply stops. Nothing else matters; you could hear a pin drop.
This is what we came to see, and in the time it takes to cross slowly across the stage, Ms. Burstyn’s sadly stoic Jacques seems to channel Shakespeare himself, and he speaks to us directly about the seven Ages of Man, through her. Dressed like a Depression-Era Preston Sturges leading man who is down on his luck, complete with battered fedora and a resigned, worldly-wise melancholy, this Jacques is just another member of the Jazz Age tribe, but in Ellen Burstyn’s understated, precise performance, delivers a riveting lesson in dramatic economy, simplicity, and truthfulness. Now in her mid-80’s, and performing with such assurance, this wonderful, accomplished actress is a national treasure; to see her so blithely performing as part of an ensemble Off-Broadway at this point in her career is nothing short of astonishing.
Because Mr. Doyle has assembled a superb, if small, company of actors, there are a number of other moments during the course of As You Like It that rise to almost the same performance level. But these moments are few and far between, and they do not channel Shakespeare as profoundly, or quite so effortlessly.
As You Like It features more songs than any other play in the Shakespeare canon, and Mr. Doyle has taken care, in most instances, to cast actors with considerable musical theatre experience, notably Cass Morgan (Audrey), Leenya Rideout (Phoebe), Kyle Scatliffe (Orlando), Bob Stillman (Duke) and the indefatigable Andre De Shields (Touchstone). For this production, first mounted at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor earlier this summer, Stephen Schwartz has composed some snappy, jazzy music to give these old lyrics life, and as he has done in so many other productions, Mr. Doyle makes good use of the performers who can play a musical instrument. The resulting musical interludes provide a welcome respite from the dialogue scenes, but for the most part the tunes are up-tempo and short, and the words, with their rueful reflection on the buffets of feigned friendship, false love and “winter, and rough weather,” tend to get lost.
The setting designed by Mr. Doyle is comprised of a wide–planked, rustic wooden playing surface thrust out from a balcony area into the audience at floor level, dressed with a large, draped curtain upstage, an upright piano on wheels and a theatrical steamer trunk. All the world’s a stage – check. A constellation of hanging light fixtures, shaped like really big acorns and able to change color, dangles over the entire playing area, in some cases low enough that the actors have to walk around them. More like Ikea than Arden Forest, but hey, absent a real stage setting, the light fixtures do provide some visual interest in a mounting that pretty much lacks it otherwise.
The light fixtures are certainly no more bewildering than it is trying to follow the story, which is fairly straightforward as written, but which is in this case rendered more difficult to navigate by having only ten actors play all the twenty-two parts Shakespeare wrote. The action of the play requires that the City journey to the Country; in As You Like It, Shakespeare has set a whole Court adrift in a forest, like an early poetic ancestor of Green Acres, and the comedy (not to mention the bulk of the action) derives from the sharp contrast between town and country: between city slickers and country rubes, between city manners and country ways. When the same actors are playing all those parts, there is no contrast, and the distinctions that normally set the character groups apart are muddled. The result is plot confusion; who is exactly in love with whom? The two central characters are not asked to stray from their roles, and do much to pull the story forward, notably the winning Hannah Cabell (Rosalind) and Mr. Scatliffe, but they are lacking the assistance of a full complement of characters around them.
Like Mr. Doyle’s even more confusing production of Peer Gynt last season, this As You Like It is reduced to a distillation of itself; more the Idea of As You Like It than the actual play, more like a chamber piece than a whole performance. I get it. CSC is a small Off-Broadway company, and twenty-two salaries is a lot to ask of it. But CSC is also one of the very few professional theatre companies in New York devoted to revivals of the classic theatre, now that The Pearl is gone, and it is disheartening to think that these plays cannot be performed without truncation. I swear, if I have to attend any more of these Readers Digest versions of classic drama, I would rather stay at home and read the script, and wait patiently for the Royal Shakespeare Company to come back into town with a whole play, and an entire cast.
As You Like It by William Shakespeare, with Original Music by Stephen Schwartz, Directed and Designed by John Doyle, Music Supervisor Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Costume design by Ann Hould-Ward, Lighting Design by Mike Baldassari, Associate Scenic Designer David Arsenault, Associate Costume Designer Amy Sutton, Hair and Wig Design by J. Jared Janas, Prop Design by Andrew Diaz, Production Stage Manager Kat West. With: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Noah Brody, Ellen Burstyn, Hannah Cabell, Andre DeShields, Cass Morgan, Leenya Rideout, David Samuel, Kyle Scatliffe, Bob Stillman. Produced by CSC/Bay Street Theater at the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street at Third Avenue. For performance schedule and tickets: www.classicstage.org/shows/2017/09/as-you-like-it/?tickets