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You’ll wonder a bit, perhaps, about the flickery silent-movie action sequence that opens As You Like It at Harman Hall, but by the time Scarlett O’Hara and Elmer Gantry show up to join Rosalind, Orlando, and a motley gaggle of Indians and Pilgrims in the Forest of Arden, you’ll know you’re in the hands of an adventurous theater-maker.
That would be Maria Aitken, the Dublin-born actress (A Fish Called Wanda) turned director (The 39 Steps), whose giddy riff on that Alfred Hitchcock film was hailed last year on Broadway for its inventive celebration of “the art of illusion-making that is theater.” Much the same thing might be said about Aitken’s As You Like It, although it’s the Hollywood myth factory, and through it the American experiment itself, that’s being celebrated here: The director sets Shakespeare’s story of a banished duke and his disguised daughter on a movie-studio soundstage, updating the era every few scenes and splicing in visual gags involving everyone from Pocahontas to W.C. Fields.
The notion—intriguing up to a point—is that the Arden forest, like the American frontier, has always meant shelter and promise for hard-luck refugees fleeing their home territories. Duke Senior, exiled by his usurping brother; his daughter Rosalind, banished years later by that same capricious ruler; well-bred Orlando, starved of money and opportunity by his older brother after their father’s death—in Aitken’s Arden they’re all colonists, looking for new chances in a new world.
Agreeable colonists, too. Francesca Faridany’s handsome Rosalind and Miriam Silverman’s lovely Celia (a cousin so loyal that she flees her father’s lands to protest Rosalind’s unjust persecution) together make a fine anchor for the production; subtly played suggestions of potential jealousy over John Behlmann’s sleek, virile Orlando add tang to a relationship that sometimes verges on saccharine. And if Mark Capri doesn’t make much of wise, world-weary Duke Senior, he’s terrific fun as that statesman’s nemesis, snarling peremptorily and stalking about his court at the head of a flying wedge of sycophantic Puritans.
Why Puritans for the usurper’s faction, when the exiles will turn up in Pilgrim garb later? Well, that’s not so clear, which is something you could fairly say for many of Aitken’s glosses. They’re glitzy and showy, even witty now and again, and even the crankiest purist would have to confess that the director’s screen-savvy treatment of As You Like It gets more and more entertaining as it goes further down Sunset Boulevard. (The evening’s Busby Berkeley finale proves the perfect capper for a Tinseltown-themed excursion into Shakespeare’s transformative woods.)
But those hypothetical purists would be justified, too, in pointing out that Aitken’s conceits get ahead of Shakespeare’s characters too often—and even in the way of his poetry now and again. And chacun à son goût or no, there’s not much to like about that.