You can’t say you weren’t warned about this As You Like Itnot after the program note from Prince Charles himself, that renowned middlebrow, assuring you of a splendid time. And yet how depressing it still is to see the Royal Shakespeare Company deliver such an empty package of a show, sealing patrons inside the Kennedy Center for upward of three dutiful hours when they could be luxuriating in the warm spring evenings that are one of the charms of Washington.
The production takes forever but also feels dashed off, with the players sprinting through their lines and director Gregory Thompson trying on concepts and styles like a runway model. Thompson makes odd
choicessuch as highlighting the edgy undertone of this comedy of loveand at first you think he’s going somewhere with them. But after about 20 minutes, you understand with terrible certainty that he isn’t.
To be sure, As You Like It exemplifies the light Shakespearean romp that’s founded on something dark. The story begins in a whirlwind of paranoia after a coup by Duke Frederick (Michael Hadley), who has usurped the throne from his older brother, the unimaginatively named Duke Senior (Hadley again). Frederick banishes Senior and his retinue to the forest of Arden and then starts driving off anybody else who looks at him cross-eyed, including Rosalind (Nina Sosanya), Senior’s daughter, and Orlando (Martin Hudson), a neurotic young buck and the son of one of Frederick’s many mortal enemies. Rosalind and Orlando are only one of the many couples who eventually get together in As You Like It, despite disguises and doubts and male ineptitude at the romantic game.
The play is the story of Eden in reverseexile to the forest to recover idyllic blissand it requires a convincing devil. Sure enough, Hadley plays Frederick to the hilt, his bared teeth and wild eyes making him into a Renaissance Hannibal Lecter. You half-expect him to bite out someone’s tongue. (Judith Greenwood’s deep-forest lighting and Colin Peters’ minimalist set abet the mood of menace.)
Hadley’s Senior, on the other hand, is Frederick’s alter egoan effortless leader of men, a guy with the oil-on-water calm of someone who meditates an hour a day. Thompson does all the scene changes on the fly, so Hadley has to flip from Frederick to Senior and back again before us, risking whiplash. But if the contrast of this spectacle is initially bracing, it quickly becomes rote.
This is the central problem with Thompson’s direction: It consists wholly of clever visual tropes (e.g., the cast as a flock of sheep or grove of trees) that don’t link up into a reading of the play. With such lines as “Sweet are the uses of adversity” and “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” As You Like It is a sustained commentary on the theatricality of life. Thompson offers only sophisticated stage management.
And maybe not all that sophisticated. The RSC seems still to be sorting out the inky depths of the Eisenhoweron both sides of the footlights. Row M was having serious trouble understanding several cast members, so one cringes at how little must have conveyed to the theater’s balcony. Worse yet, the world may be a stage, but Thompson makes this stage as wide as the horizon. He blocks his cast with a spaciousness that generates anomie instead of intimacy. He also refuses to invoke the customary textual edits or to stage scenes simultaneously, so the endless string of lovers who keep tumbling from the wings constitutes an endurance test for the audience.
The performances are a fizzle of disconnection, random electrons that rarely graze each other. Where is the yearning, burning passion in Sosanya’s Rosalind as she (in male disguise) teaches the inexperienced Orlando how to woo? Instead, she and Thompson sketch the character as a sunny, dull mistress of ceremonies for the play’s erotic episodes. Meanwhile, John Killoran’s Touchstone gets to go nuclearhe’s Michael Flatley as jester, all heel-kicks and power-yoga poses that are meant to be hilarious pantomime but merely pantomime someone who’s hilarious.
Only Naomi Frederick, as Duke Frederick’s daughter, Celia, is worthy of attention. Yes, Celia is Shakespeare’s standard pert-and-saucy supporting female, and Frederick certainly has sauce to burn. But her Celia also becomes the conscience of the play, clearly anguished at her father’s tyranny and yet beautifully measuring out her speech to the newly exiled Rosalind, the decision to hide out with her friend building with the quiet power of self-revelation. She first pronounces her new pseudonym (“Aliena”) as if it were an awesome disease, and in that one word you sense the price of her sacrifice as well as the strength of her love.
Otherwise, this As You Like It avoids such complication. The script is ghosted with memento mori, and Thompson’s stab at playing it in a minor key could make sense. But his idea of following down Shakespeare’s ideas amounts to mere costuming. Indeed, the actual costuming here (dull-toned Victorian by Hilary Lewis) matches the whole effort: It shows off a designer’s talents but never actually converses with the play.
What you need to watch if you go to the Washington Stage Guild’s regional premiere of Rose are Barbara Rappaport’s hands. Her character, Rose, an 80-year-old survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, has emphysema and thus trouble breathing. But her hands are still giddy teenagers. They flutter; they flatter; they plead and soothe and accuse; they billow with the smoke of the ghetto’s burning. They make for mesmerizing ballet. And you also need to watch them because the rest of the play is unfortunately only sporadically interesting. No matter how deft the interpretation, Martin Sherman’s monologue script will probably always turn the makings of a fascinating life story into a flat-footed travelogue of the Jewish 20th century.
It would hardly be a Jewish memory play without the Holocaust, and yet it’s surprising how the rest of Rose’s life seems to obscure the two years she spent hiding from the Nazis in the sewers of Warsaw. The effect, of course, is illusory: Born in a Ukranian shtetl and now in failing health in her Miami Beach apartment, Rose carries a survivor’s guilt and a bitterness that her jaunty self-sufficiency can’t quite cover. The play begins with an arresting image worthy of The Pianist: Rose describes the death of her daughter, who was running toward a kettle of soup during the war. “She laughed, and then she blew her nose,” says Rose. “The bullet struck her in the forehead. It caught her in the middle of a thought.”
Now Rose is sitting shivathe Jewish custom of halting all activity for seven days to remember and honor the deceased. Whom she is remembering remains a mystery until play’s end, but Rose makes clear that Rose has sat shiva many times, for numerous husbands as well as her original family. Shiva also serves as an opportunity for self-recollection, especially for the elderly. Her son, who has emigrated to Israel and become a fierce defender of settlers’ rights, accuses her of both assimilating and of embodying a dead world, a past whose “weakness” in the face of enemies embarrasses today’s Israel and vitiates its future.
In a sense, then, Rose is mourning herselfand also berating herself for having outlasted her time. She accuses herself of “stinking of the past century,” of repeatedly missing her chance to die. “I’m 80 years old,” she says. “I find that unforgivable!” Sherman thus creates a juicy heap of dramatic materialand then sets it completely aside during a very long and rather pedestrian recounting of Rose’s picaresque life. You hear about her taste for smooth-chested men, her ’50s business in Atlantic City, her acid-dropping ’60s commune, how the ’90s Miami Beach hotel she owned became a dance club. Sherman drops the through-lines of his ideas, and when he tries to pick them up again at the end of the play, it’s too late. And Rappaport’s control of the character is perhaps too complete. She and director Bill Largess need to get more emotional ebb and flow from Rose, more frailty and self-doubt, and a resurrection of those subtexts that the script seems to discard.
Still, the experience of Rose can be an arresting one: You walk off busy 14th Street and into a cool, dark space to hear a woman on the verge of death talk about incredible things. The chillingly evocative set design, by Tracie Duncan, includes a backdrop of what appear to be hanging linen shrouds, some with smudges that seem like ghostly portraits. As Rappaport’s hands work, the shrouds, too, shift constantly, blowing in a slight breeze, revealing glimpses of a black beyond that beckons to Rose and to the rest of us like an afterlifeor oblivion. CP