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Even certified classics don’t always make for guaranteed success in production, of course. Take As You Like It: It’s one of the more difficult bits of nonsense Shakespeare ever served up, a gender-bent romance that flits from a politics-poisoned ducal court to an all-but-enchanted forest where love’s palpably in the air. Fanciful is the adjective we use when we’re in a good mood.
And so it’s perfectly within reason that director Derek Goldman has come at it fancifully in his Folger Theatre debut, serving up a WWE-flavored wrestling match, a courtier who mopes to the tropes of a Joe Jackson lyric, and a same-sex romance for his female fool. The play’s world, after all, is one in which unexpected things happen, unexpected truths turn up, unexpected feelings erupt; As You Like It centers on Rosalind, a woman masquerading as a man after a narrow political scrape, and her lovesick swain Orlando, who hangs bad poetry on trees and takes woo-pitching lessons from an oddly androgynous stranger without realizing that it’s his own disguised girlfriend doing the coaching. An idiosyncratic stage picture or two, in service to a story as unlikely as this one, isn’t all that much to swallow.
True, the whimsy in this production extends a whit too far now and again, not least when it comes to Carol Bailey’s costumes—I’m thinking particularly of the stilt-walking wrestling-match referees, with their 3-foot-tall, fur-covered conical hats, and of the cowboy duke in the Forest of Arden, with his retinue of gay leprechauns.
Occasionally, too, you can’t help wishing that Goldman had spent less time exploring the twee and more time wrangling his players into a dramatic world that, however singular its upholstery might be, had even a marginal consistency about it. Sarah Marshall’s sensible Touchstone doesn’t seem like she’d actually be able to bear Amanda Quaid’s squishy Rosalind for more than a few minutes, court retainer or no, and why a manly man like Noel Vélez’s oft-shirtless Orlando would look for guidance to a camping, vamping sidewinder like Ganymede (as the disguised Rosalind calls herself) is beyond me.
Still, there are moments. Goldman stages the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech so that the stage action stops, as if Arden and its inhabitants had suddenly been preserved in amber, but Joseph Marcell’s eloquently melancholy Jacques nonetheless puts the text across with gentle clarity. And Marshall parses the notion that insults come in seven degrees—and that “Your ‘If’ is your only peacemaker”—so gracefully that the last phrase seems a new-discovered wisdom on her tongue.
And Clint Ramos’ set, all green ladders and lovely leafy projections (lit rapturously by Dan Covey), strikes just the right note of mingled mischief and ache. It’s a marvelous bit of stagecraft—a pitch-perfect contribution to a whole whose parts, alas, don’t always harmonize completely.