at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
As You Like It
by William Shakespeare
directed by Rosa Joshi
At the very least yet another romp through Arden Forest should be enjoyable fun. Done with artistry, a director can use this comedy to make Shakespeare seem like a feminist. After all, the freedom to love will win out and the women’s decisions share the shaping of action in Arden Forest. At least I think they do.
On the other hand, the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s offering didn’t even amuse me. The show is both scattered and heavy handed; it’s a supreme waste of obvious acting talent. A week after seeing it I remember some of the characters’ actions, but I never fell into the story and I never felt the production came together.
Director Rosa Joshi made some curious decisions.
The quirk that hits you from the start is the too-long, too-stylized, fascist marching in a maze pattern that the cast does in the initial scenes. Whenever it starts, the movement goes on for relatively forever. Unfortunately I was too stupid to appreciate the significance of the torturous walks that keep the play from having any momentum. So, I just watched the onstage drilling with, ahhh… bewildered patience. (I was later informed that the militaristic procession showed how rigid court life was under the new duke and could be contrasted with the life leaping in Arden Forest. Silly me for not picking this up.)
I assume that Christine Tschirgi, the costume designer, was just following orders when she created the ugly upholstery that the court characters had to wear. The shapes of the clothes the actors wore had nothing to do with the people in them. In any event they had the visual appeal of your grandmother’s heavy, sun-blocking curtains.
But, it goes beyond symbolic touches that didn’t work. The casting was confusing, and not in fun, new-twist-on-an-old-play way. Rachel Crowl (Duke Senior) , the good guy that is banished to Arden Forest by Kevin Kenerly (Duke Frederick) , is played by a woman who is made up to look — and acts — younger than the usurper. I truly had a hard time getting my mind around the fact that the younger-appearing actor on stage was the senior character in the play.
Next, Crowl is a woman and the director honored her sex by altering the lines to use the construction, “The Duke, she…” when referring to her character. Maybe this was supposed to be extra good fun in a play about a female dressing as a male, but, ugh. It didn’t feel fun to me.
Worse for my feeling of coherence, Crowl, has a beautiful baritone singing voice which sounds deeper than Kenerly’s speaking. So, when “she” sings, it’s in a pitch that is befuddling.
I am an advocate of Love is Love is Love. But, when the play itself keys off the confusion of sexual identity and resolves when the natural (sic) order is restored, adding a layer of in-your-face sexual ambiguity that is not resolved at curtain time is unhelpful. It stands in virtual opposition to the plot of Shakespeare’s play. It’s a bad directorial choice.
Basically, I don’t like trying to figure out what part of the identities we are supposed to notice and what part we should ignore as “color-blind casting”. That goes for skin color-blind casting and sex color-blind casting. Confusion has its limits as an artistic tactic.
The distracting marching, the off-putting clothes, the muddled casting, and general disarray is a failure of direction. It’s a hot mess.
On the other hand, all of the actors are excellent. There are many wonderful moments between characters, or scenes where the actors do it just right.
Crowl’s singing is wonderful. The bare-chested flexing of James Ryen was downright artistic, and I liked the contrasting scale of the flexing of the bare-chested Román Zaragoza.
Jessica Ko’s Roslind is excellent. Kenerly is perfect, and Rex Young (Touchstone) delivers some very, very fine scenes. Still the play fails.
One of my theater companions chronically suggests that I shouldn’t judge a performance on opening night. She says that the actors are nervous and more prone to errors. The company will develop more chemistry as the run goes on, she explains. And, that’s what she says about the opening night production we saw of As You Like It. She’s too kind.
The actors give us some quality moments. Unfortunately, the moments don’t work together. There isn’t a vision for the production that’s clear, and certainly not one that’s compelling.
This year’s As You Like It is a miss that earns its 3 stars for actors’ individual performances.