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Katharine Hepburn used to tell a story about the time an eager young playwright sent her a manuscript. “Loved your darling play,” she began her reply, “though I’m afraid it’s not right for me at this…” Then she stopped. The writer had presumably slaved over the damn thing. He deserved an honest response. So she picked up another piece of stationery. “Your wretched little play gave me a headache,” she began again. But that seemed unnecessarily cruel. And her third attempt—”I’m afraid I haven’t had time to read your manuscript”—was clearly disingenuous. She sat at her desk for a moment, pen poised, and no solution at hand. Finally, in exasperation, she just stuffed all three responses in an envelope and mailed it off.

Director Laurence Boswell has taken much the same approach to staging As You Like It for the Shakespeare Theatre. He’s come up with a number of notions about how the Bard’s comedy might work—some intriguing, some counterproductive, some flat-out idiotic, and all conflicting—and he’s elected to put every single one of them onstage.

The evening begins—in a leaf-strewn but otherwise sterile environment that looks like a cross between the National Gallery’s East Wing and an airplane hangar—when a backlit figure steps from between two enormous sheet-metal doors into near-total darkness. After fumbling for a moment, he lights a funerary candle and then steps back into the shadows to recite the play’s first lines.

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Despite appearances, no lighting cue has been missed. Nor are we in a mausoleum. The darkness is simply a soon-to-be-abandoned directorial gambit designed to open the evening on a visually striking note. Patrons who feel charitable might decide to see it as underlining the bleakness of the society from which both Orlando (the sweet, misunderstood guy who lit the candle) and Rosalind (the witty princess with whom he’ll soon fall in love) are about to be banished. Whatever. It’s of a piece with Angela Davies’ predominantly black costumes and the cast’s somber line readings.

Once the exposition has been dispensed with, the staging heads off to professional-wrestling territory, with yupster onlookers posing in tailored suits and cocktail dresses. Then to a Beckettian, one-tree Forest of Arden populated by a band of none-too-merry men led by a Davy Crockett lookalike (who turns out to be Rosalind’s exiled father). And finally, just before intermission, the director takes us to a torture chamber where Orlando’s badly beaten and slashed brother is strung up by the heels and shocked with a cattle prod.

Did I mention the Sensurround rumble that accompanies the usurping Duke’s every entrance? The circle of neon that appears intermittently in the sky? The gay, coke-snorting courtier who kisses Orlando on the lips, quite as if a play with a cross-dressing heroine needed additional sexual confusion? No?…Well, never mind. They all disappear after intermission anyway.

What Boswell substitutes in the second half is a downstage wading pool and clusters of daffodils that don’t begin to desterilize the travertine and aluminum landscape, as well as some forced romantic gaiety that’s only marginally more successful in dispelling the evening’s general torpor. He also takes a decidedly peculiar last-minute detour into the world of musical comedy, and stages a series of faux-finales that seem designed to provide scenic cover for a film-style credit roll that never comes. (The actual curtain call is an applause-killing mess.)

If all this stylistic bouncing around has a point, it’s not immediately clear, and it’s disorienting as hell. When the final wedding scene turned operatic—in contrast to the quasi-folk tenor of earlier musical moments—the opening-night audience began actively buzzing in confusion. And shifts from images of battered torture victims to cross-dressing vaudevillians pretty much squelch any comic momentum the actors manage to develop during individual scenes. Cynical Jaques’ announcement that he can suck melancholy out of a song the way a weasel sucks eggs might as well have served as a watchcry for Boswell’s entire staging. Certainly the director is working much harder at creating stage pictures than he is on sucking up laughs, even when they’re right there in the script. One of the Bard’s more obvious jokes, for instance—Rosalind’s rattling off of a breathless volley of queries that concludes with the impossible demand, “Answer me in one word!”—gets not so much as a snicker because it’s delivered conversationally, without any emphasis on the punch line.

There are bits that do work. I rather liked Jaques’ habit of documenting the world’s capriciousness by snapping Polaroids as he rails at the fools around him. Floyd King makes this solitary character’s loneliness haunting, and has a lovely way with his “seven ages of man” speech. Kelly McGillis may be a bit long of tooth to be playing ingenues these days, but her Rosalind is fun once she has donned male drag for her gender-bending games with Orlando. She’s also physically relaxed in a way I’ve not seen her before. When she first drags her valise into the desert, plopping down in her baggy, three-piece suit, legs spread and muddy boots splayed, she looks ready to tackle either of the lead roles (casting directors, take note) in Waiting for Godot.

C.J. Wilson’s Orlando is sweetly perplexed when he finds himself attracted to this ungainly, seemingly male creature. I couldn’t decide whether Wilson reminded me more of a smarter version of ER’s Noah Wyle, or of a younger Jeff Bridges, but either way, he’s strapping and appealing. David Sabin isn’t exactly stretching when he directs shepherd-shtick straight at the crowd out front, but that doesn’t make him any less winning. Ditto Ted van Griethuysen’s paternal beneficence as the evening’s unfairly exiled monarch, which he could probably do in his sleep. Also fine are Opal Alladin and Wallace Acton as love-struck rubes (unfortunately saddled with hillbilly accents).

Actually, the production is generally well acted, even when—as with Robert Sicular’s sneering, hideously costumed Touchstone—the performers are playing their parts in thoroughly off-putting, misguided ways. If only the director had stuck with a concept—any old concept—the evening’s various parts might just have added up to something.

Instead, the show wobbles and weaves, looking glitzy even when Adam Silverman’s lighting is plunging faces into shadows, but rarely able to capitalize on its occasional flashes of insight. Take the last one, which is barely even visible. In the final few seconds before the lights go down, as most of the characters are coming forward to float wedding candles in the wading pool (an image that’s doubtless meant as a cheerful bookend to that funerary candle-lighting at the show’s start), poor Jaques is wandering in desolation at the rear of the stage. From my seat, he was in view for scarcely a split-second through what was perhaps a 40-inch gap in a sheet-metal wall that had just closed as he began his solitary trek. The director apparently thought the retreat to a

hermit’s cave of the Bard’s most thoughtful, articulate character was worth illustrating. Alas, he couldn’t maintain interest in the notion long enough to bother making it possible for the folks out front to see it.CP