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A CurtainUp BerkshireReview
As You Like It
By Elyse Sommer
With all the hype surrounding this hottest of hot ticket shows in the Berkshires, let's begin by answering the question that first springs to mind. Does Gwyneth Paltrow, the Oscar-winning on-screen Juliet, live up to all the advance hoopla about her appearance as Rosalind in As You Like it?. Indeed she does -- well, to a large extent. Even Dame Edith Evans and Katherine Hepburn who were among this century's more famous Rosalinds couldn't possibly have fully lived up to the publicity that has turned this from a summer stock play into the summer's hot must-see event.
Suffice it to say that Paltrow is even more beautiful on stage than off, and she commands that stage without ever hogging it. Her opening (and closing) scenes in magnificent decidedly 20th Century strapless gowns and sleekly coiffed blonde hair provide all the anticipated "oomph." Ms. Paltrow invests that elegance with enough playfulness to make her transformation into a knicker-clad young man believably endearing. Whether playing lady or lad she is considerably more assured than the last film star cast in a classic play by Director Barry Edelstein (Uma Thurman in the much hyped modern (The Misanthrope ) .
You may never quite forget that Ganimede is really Rosalind/Gwyneth, but then this woodland romance has always required a certain suspension of disbelief. The level of Paltrow's performance and that of several of the two dozen other actors makes it easy for the audience to set aside any thoughts about the silliness of the gender play and get into the fun and spirit of the various intrigues and romances.
Director Edelstein's underscores the playful transitions by giving the court scenes with a sophisticated 1920's jazz age aura and turning the confrontation between Orlando and the court wrestler (Mark K. Smaltz) into an amusing arm-wrestling match. The Arden Forest scenes are a rustic playland-- with costumes reminiscent of the Flintstones for some of the comic second bananas. Instead of old English songs, there's a terrific jazz combo, discreetly hidden behind a scrim and two genuine musical talents, Larry Marshall (playing a servant) and Sam Breslin Wright (as William), belting out songs , including Satchmo's own favorite "It's a Wonderful World."
The plot, in a nutshell is this: Rosalind, the daughter of a banished duke (Byron Jennings), falls in love with Orlando (Alessandro Nivola) the disinherited son of one of the duke's friends. When she is banished from the court by her usurping uncle, Duke Frederick (also played by Jennings ), Rosalind switches genders and as Ganymede travels with her loyal cousin a Celia (Megan Dodds) and the jester Touchstone (Mark Linn-Baker) to the Forest of Arden, where her father and his friends live in exile. Oservations on life and love follow, friends are made, and families are reunited. By the play's end Ganymede, once again Rosalind, marries her Orlando. Two other sets of lovers are also wed, one of them Celia and Orlando's mean older brother Oliver (Stephen Barker Turner). As Oliver becomes a gentler, kinder young man so the "bad" Duke conveniently espouses religion so that the exiled Duke can rule once again. To borrow from another play, all's well that ends well.
While Ms. Paltrow is clearly the box office draw the cast includes enough dazzling performances to offset some disappointments and missteps. Michael Cumpsty is especially fine as the melancholy Jaques, dashing in appearance and with a voice worthy of his character's many memorable lines, including the famous "All the world's a stage . . ." Williamstown regular Tom Bloom also ranks high in the booming voice and delivery department, making an as always strong impression even in the small role of an old shepherd.
Alessandro Nivola is an attractive and likeable Orlando but he lacks the sexual charisma of Joseph Fienes (Paltrow's romantic opposite in Shakespeare In Love). One could more readily imagine a young woman instantly drawn to Cumpsty as Orlando than the paler Nivola (in performance and appearance). Megan Dodds, who plays Rosalind's loyal compadre, Celia, acts as well as she looks.
Of course, no Shakespeare comedy would be complete without a clown and Mark Linn-Baker is brilliant as Touchstone, the jester. As for his romantic counterpart, Audrey the goatherd, I may be in the minority in my lack of enthusiasm for Lea DeLaria . While I thought she added a good deal of spark to last season's less than sparkling Broadway revival of On the Town (or review), I think she is miscast here. Whereas Linn-Baker bring's the master's touch to his shamelessly over-the-top portrayal, DeLaria is merely excessive and vulgar. She is justifiably uncomfortable in Shakespeare's world. (In fairness to DeLaria, many in the audience seemed to love her antics, and she had girl of about 12 sitting across the aisle from me convulsed in giggles )
The cast is too large to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of all the performances. However, Byron Jennings deserves a double round of applause for ably handling both the usurping and the usurped Duke.
For the most part Mr. Edelstein's production works well in making this old-fashioned romantic fairy tale fun and accessible for modern audiences, without sacrificing the essence of Shakespeare -- the language. With new musicals in what looks to be at least a temporary state of decline, the almost-a-musical style he has created may well be a genre whose time has come. The staging is surprisingly simple and less frantic than the Festival's other trendy Shakespearian offering, The Taming of the Shrew ( our review). Edelstein's "tampering" is low key by comparison and never gets in the way of the story. Narelle Sisson's set makes good use of two boxy prosceniums, some simple exit ramps and a trap door, with Rui Rita's always excellent lighting enhancing the one really spectacular prop -- a giant rose slowly lowered for the big finale.
Shakespeare purists may turn up their noses at all this modernization, yet such departures from standard Shakespeare have long been a tradition, as have the complaints and jokes they tend to inspire. When the venerable old Vic strayed from the traditional path thirty years ago with an all-male version (with Anthony Hopkins playing Audrey), Sir Laurence Olivier quipped "shouldn't the women be wearing breasts?" Even if you prefer your As You Like It "as is", you'll nevertheless be entertained -- that's if you can nab one of those hard to get tickets.