If a play is set in a forest where there are no trees, is it still set in a forest?
The answer is yes, of course, but the question bears asking this fall, since in the run-up to its fall production of As You Like It, Shakespeare Theatre Company launched an elaborate cross-marketing campaign with the U.S. Botanic Garden. With a podcast, an app or an old-school map, Shakespeare lovers can stroll through the glass-enclosed hothouse looking for examples of flora that may bring to mind Ophelia’s mad-speech bouquet or Titania’s Midsummer bower. The whole promotional effort is called “Escape to the Forest of Arden,” named after the sylvan expanse that becomes refuge to various banished characters in As You Like It.
You didn’t have to actually go to the Botanic Garden—-has anybody been there since the corpse flower opened last year?—-to be under the impression that maybe, when you went to see the play, the set would involve a few trees. The Shakespeare Theatre proudly purveys some of the most extravagant sets in town, and last season’s Importance of Being Earnest garden party was a fine example of going over the top with the foliage for good reason. But there is nary a plant in this production of As You Like It. Instead, the much-vaulted Forest of Arden is represented by a series of taupe-colored curtains splashed with grey paint.
A misleading marketing campaign is no reason to harp on director Michael Attenborough’s artistic choices, but this As You Like It does appear to be a case study in how far removed the theater’s ticket-selling administrators are from the artistic process, or how they’ve become content to run their own shows no matter what the creative team has planned.
What is going on at the theater, in this case, is a sub-par installment of the bare-bones Bard productions that Washingtonians have come to expect from that other Shakespearean outfit in town: the Folger Library. Thus far this year, the Folger has presented three examples of minimalist Shakespeare at its finest. From London’s Globe Theatre, we got a Hamlet with the props packed in actors’ suitcases, and from the incisive hipsters of New York’s Fiasco Theater, fantastic repertory productions of Cymbeline and Two Gentleman of Verona, the latter acted with verve by four guys dressed like Boden models and two girls who shop at Anthropologie. All three productions proved that you don’t need large casts and elaborate sets to stage Shakespeare with unified ideas and aesthetics.
Attenborough’s As You Like It, by contrast, has way more going on than should be possible on such a bare stage, which costume and set designer Jonathan Fensom has encased in dark wood paneling reminiscent of a 1970s basement. The production does share a commitment to presenting Shakespeare’s language with great clarity, but that’s about it for positive similarities with the aforementioned productions. Attenborough reportedly left rehearsals early, and this As You Like It feels like an unfinished hodgepodge, which is especially problematic given that presenting a wide range of anachronistic costumes and accents was apparently part of his plan all along.
Like a mash-up of other Shakespearean storylines, the plot of As You Like It involves a banished duke, rustic comics, and a cross-dressing young lover. As the show opens, one duke has disposed of his brother, sending him off to hide in the Forest of Arden. (Both dignitaries are played by the same actor, who switches coats onstage.) The lovely heroine Rosalind follows her father into the woods voluntarily, but dressed as a boy because she fears for the roaming assailants and knaves. Instead of facing a ne’er-do-well, though, she is reunited with Orlando, a courtier she fell for after watching him win a wrestling match back home. But too bad for her: She’s wearing pants, a vest, and has her long golden hair pulled back in a ponytail, Shakespearean-era code for “man.”
What Attenborough seems to be positing is that Orlando (Andrew Veenstra) sees through Rosalind’s rather lame disguise but plays along. Zoe Waites, an English actress with impressive West End credits, does a nice job of portraying Rosalind as one of those girls who parcels out great relationship advice that she’s incapable of following herself. The impulsive, poetry-writing couple is offset by the anti-romantic contrarian Jaques (played here by a good but underused Derek Smith). The most poignant moment in the play may come in Act IV, when Rosalind mocks Jaques for chiding God. Smith steps silently forward, smiles and strokes Waites on the nose before exiting.
Very little doubling was necessary in this big-budget production, and at times, the Lansburgh Theatre appears overrun with ensemble members playing rustic shepherds and country wenches. They are costumed in a mix of contemporary Goodwill garb that contrasts wildly with the antebellum gowns initially worn by the leading ladies and three-piece Depression-era woolen suits donned by most of the men. (And the Shriner’s parade outfit for Touchstone the fool, WTF?!) The play ends with the most massive wedding in Shakespeare’s canon—-in this production, a crazy Oklahoma!-esque hoedown that feels entirely unearned. True, there is a line about “rustic revelry,” but there is also a directive to leave Rosalind alone onstage at the end which has been entirely ignored.
“Like as much of this play as please you,” Waites says, breathlessly, in the epilogue delivered after the song-and-dance number. In a production this scattershot, her admonishment feels particularly apt.
As You Like it is now showing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre through Dec. 14.
Photo by Scott Suchman