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Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company at Clark Street Playhouse to May 26

As You Like It

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Catherine Flye

Produced by Interact Theater Company and the Folger Shakespeare Library at the Folger Elizabethan Theater to May 5

No one in the American theater writes redneck poetry like Sam Shepard, and no one in D.C. theater interprets that poetry with more feral intensity than Chris Henley and Brian Hemmingsen. Those fortunate enough to have seen them brawling their way through the playwright’s True West at Source Theater in 1983 won’t soon forget the sight of toast flying in all directions (food does tend to end up on the floor in Shepard plays), and bodies flying, too. Well…one body flying, anyway. Hemmingsen, being larger by about a power of 10, was invariably the hurler, Henley the hurlee.

In Washington Shakespeare Company’s savagely comic Curse of the Starving Class at Clark Street Playhouse, Hemmingsen’s still tossing Henley at audiences, but this time he’s doing it from a director’s chair. Shepard’s caustic, sun-baked tale of a hardscrabble California family clinging to its avocado farm even as it tries to hitch a ride on the American dream, provides the springboard, with Henley playing Wesley, the one family member who recognizes that something will be lost if the family gives up its parched parcel of land. Bitter mother Ella (Caren Anton) can’t wait to sell the place out from under her drunken lout of a husband, Weston (Ian LeValley), who, it turns out, is cooking up real estate deals of his own. Wesley’s kid sister, Emma (Hope Lambert), is about to get kicked into the mud when she tries to ride into the sunset on horseback.

But Wesley, who is dimmer than dirt and just as likely to get trodden underfoot, suspects he’ll be better off staying put. This homestead is full of memories his barely post-teen brain has yet to sort out: memories of model airplanes, family fights, and the homeward roar of his father’s Packard in the eerie pre-dawn stillness following one of his all-night binges in town.

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In fact, before the play is properly under way, Wesley is so bursting with these memories that he walks to the lip of set designer Michael Murray’s slatted rhombus and jumps off to share them. As the lad’s booted heels land with a thud on the forestage, Shepard’s language takes flight. Thumbs tucked in pants pockets, eyes alight with a St. Joan-ish glow, Wesley describes the sound of his drunken dad turning the front door to kindling (“foot kickin’… shoulder smashin’…man throwin’ wood…man throwin’ up”) in a free-association rant that’s as haunting as it is creepily funny.

Later, when talk turns to menstruation, maggots, pissing, the poisoning of coyotes, and the death of dreams, he’ll lose the glow, his eyes filling instead with a kind of yearning. Watch him begging his pa to retell a story about a testicle-eating eagle, or witness the idolatry in his eyes when the old man rises from his stupor atop the kitchen table to spread his wings in mock flight. The lad is twentysomething going on 12-and-a-half, and cursed, like the rest of his family, with a hunger that can’t be sated at the icebox—which is nearly always empty, anyway.

Nearly, but not quite. For dad stuffs it with artichokes, and mom with unexpected bounty when each thinks things are going his or her way. They aren’t, of course. This family is so truly cursed that even plots against one another result in winnings only for outsiders, like the oily lawyer (Andy Rapoport) and snorting, vicious barkeep (Eric Lucas), who take them for what little they’re worth.

Hemmingsen’s staging is crisp and firmly rooted in reality—pull-toy lambs, an intermittent country-western soundtrack, and a stylized setting notwithstanding. The director is working with a kindred spirit in Henley, so it’s no surprise that the actor is genuinely transfixing, whether wandering naked with a soon-to-be-bloodied sheep in his arms, or staring sullenly into an empty refrigerator. But Hemmingsen has also reaped ferocious performances from his other leads. LeValley’s Weston is a lurching, chortling terror until he sobers up and becomes pathetic for a whole new set of reasons. Anton’s Ella, trudging from room to room with four dejected curlers torturing her flaccid locks, manages to reveal vulnerability behind a vinegary visage. And if Lambert never seems particularly pubescent, she certainly has the giddiness of childhood (“I’m going into crime; it’s the only thing that pays these days”) down pat. Together they capture Shepard’s dyspeptic view of contemporary family values.

That their collective performance also hints at a broader social message is a bonus. I’m not sure why the line “you never hear the sound of change any more” sounded so political at the matinee I attended. Maybe because it’s an election year. The next sentence (“It’s all just plastic, shufflin’ ”) brought the image back to dollars and cents, but for a moment, it sounded as if Shepard, writing in the mid-1970s, had had his finger on the pulse of a later generation’s starving class—the one that’s spent the last few years holed up in isolated Montana cabins, stockpiling explosives.

I’ve never quite understood why my colleagues on the aisle have gone so gaga over Interact Theater Company’s fair-to-middling productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, but if they do so for the company’s first stab at the Bard, they’re out of their minds. G&S aficionados are used to sloppy-around-the-edges mountings of their favorite operettas populated by earnestly grinning amateurs whose voices and colorful costumes allegedly make up for a lack of acting prowess. I find such productions pretty deadly, even when, as in Interact’s Helen Hayes Award–winning, Floyd King–starring Pirates of Penzance, they revolve around a legitimately amusing central performance. The economics of 50-performer musicales being what they are, die-hard G&S fans will probably have to settle for pretty (and pretty-sounding) amateur nights until someone resurrects London’s Savoyards. That doesn’t mean the rest of us need put up with them.

Fans of Shakespeare, on the other hand, don’t have to look far to find sharply acted Elizabethan productions in this city, not just by two companies bearing the Bard’s name, but by Arena Stage and a variety of visiting troupes. That’s not to say there isn’t room for other local companies to do Shakespeare—witness Source Theater’s terrific, Yupsters-with-cellular-phones staging of The Merchant of Venice at the Folger Elizabethan Theater two seasons ago—but it does suggest that there’s no real demand for the overdesigned, ineptly acted, dopily directed, musicalized-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life As You Like It Interact is jointly producing there with the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Director Catherine Flye essentially ignores the dark subtext in Shakespeare’s bright comedy—about lovers Rosalind and Orlando frolicking through their unfair but mercifully brief banishment in the Forest of Arden—and subjects it to the sort of frivolous decoration usually heaped on G&S operettas. Designer Ron Kadri provides acres of lacy foliage and a rope swing twined prettily with vines. F. Mitchell Dana dapples everything with blue, green, and pink light (oddly without making the foliage look one whit less flat). And vaguely 19th-century costumes in an incoherent variety of styles, textures, and colors designed by the usually reliable William Pucilowsky complete the stage picture with a busy flourish.

Flye, alas, isn’t content merely to clutter up the visuals, she must also clutter up the script, with a plethora of time-wasting ditties presumably designed to amuse any G&S fans who’ve wandered in out of habit. As You Like It does have more song cues than most of the Bard’s works, a fact that’s usually finessed by contemporary directors by having strolling musicians provide lots of musical underscoring. Here, all action stops dead in its tracks whenever someone mentions music, and the audience is subjected to several minutes of baldly irrelevant balladeering. By the fifth of nearly a dozen interpolated songs, anyone who’s not a fan of 17th- and 18th-century music is going to be pulling hair out by the handful.

As for Shakespeare?…well, he has a few allies in the cast. TJ Edwards is a sharp Jaques, making the character’s “All the world’s a stage” rumination a model of phrasing and sly insight. John C. Hansen, who was a strapping Proteus in Washington Shakespeare Company’s recent Two Gentlemen of Verona, is just as good here as a goofily hotheaded Orlando (Michael Kahn, are you listening?), and Sarah Ripard is a lovely and well-spoken Rosalind. Other fine actors—Richard Pilcher, Michael Judge, and Jim Zidar among them—are either miscast or undercut by direction or costuming, and the supporting cast is mostly awful, allowed by the director to do all sorts of trickily annoying things with canes and puppets and silly walks rather than develop characters.

If that’s the way you like it, it’s all yours.CP