‘As You Like It’ on shaky ground
Antaeus Theatre’s ‘partner-casting’ leaves the production feeling a bit unsettled.
“Sweet are the uses of adversity,” the exiled Duke Senior asserts from his campground in the Forest of Arden in “As You Like It.” For a drama critic attending a lackluster production of Shakespeare’s greatest comedy, these words are a reminder that there are lessons to be learned from even a limply staged masterwork.
At the opening Thursday of Antaeus Theatre Company’s production of “As Your Like It” at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale, I found myself wondering why, with so many passable-to-good individual performances, the result was so flat-footed. The Peascods (the acting group I saw) alternate with the Acorns in a production directed by Rob Clare that still feels unsettled.
Common sense would suggest that Antaeus’ practice of “partner casting” isn’t ideal for material as expansive and directorially challenging as Shakespeare. Rehearsing one actor per principal role is tough enough; doubling the number of Rosalinds, Orlandos, Celias and Touchstones (among other characters) is opening the door to chaos.
But let’s table any speculation on the fallout of this system of producing for the time being. The problem onstage is that the actors have little relationship to any sense of place. The set by François-Pierre Couture, a designer whose boldly imaginative work I’ve long admired, is a bland marblelike slab that makes no distinction between court and country.
The opening scenes exist in a kind of no-man’s-land. The performers’ physical life hasn’t yet caught up with their line readings.
Rosalind (Sally Hughes) and her cousin Celia (Desirée Mee Jung) have become inseparable after Celia’s tyrannical father, Duke Frederick (Brian Abraham), has usurped the dominions of Rosalind’s banished father, Duke Senior (Bernard K. Addison). These affectionately wisecracking young women should know where they’re going, but the actresses playing them wander about their environment with the tentativeness of visitors to a foreign city.
Jung’s Celia is a pertly amusing sidekick, the Ethel to Rosalind’s Lucy. When Celia bellows to her downcast cousin, “Be merry,” the imperious implication (“Or else!”) is uttered more out of pain than aggression but hilarious all the same.
Hughes’ worried-looking Rosalind doesn’t seem all that concerned with gal-pal chemistry. She doesn’t have much natural affinity with Matthew Gallenstein’s affable Orlando either. He’s the disinherited young man who wins her heart after triumphing in a wrestling match and earning Duke Frederick’s ire, which sends him and his father’s old servant, Adam (Mitchell Edmonds), scrambling into the woods along with the women for a masquerading, obstacle-strewn frolic that inevitably becomes romantically enriching.
There are a few noticeably weak performances in this lyrically shortchanged production. Abraham’s Frederick turns a comedy tyrant into a cartoon villain. But the widespread problem is a conspicuous lack of connection among company members. JD Cullum’s Touchstone, the fool traveling with the women, would be funnier were his gibes and gags targeted to a character rather than pitched to audience members for their approbation.
Steve Hofvendahl stands out in the small part of Corin, a genial shepherd, for simply registering whatever another character is saying. (You know your production of “As You Like It” is in trouble when Corin steals the show!)
Perhaps because melancholy Jaques is supposed to be isolated, I thought reasonably well of James Sutorius’ portrayal. But the character’s seven ages of man monologue is performed with a touch too much somber sentiment for a speech that is meant to have the residue of an old set piece. (There’s wisdom in Jaques’ lines but of an overrehearsed order.)
A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes, neither appropriately period nor legibly modern dress, fail to establish a coherent theatrical world. Why, for heaven’s sake, are Anna Lamadrid’s droll Phebe and Paul Culos’ stupefied Silvius, two moony rustics who spend their days among sheep, dressed as though they’re living in London during the swinging ’60s?
Clare is an experienced hand with Shakespeare, but he seems to be contending here with inadequate resources and impossible logistics. Fortunately, the play’s the thing, and “As You Like It” is undeniably a poetic jewel. But it needs a Rosalind to anchor the comedy with her charm and acute intelligence and a troupe that can make the love games seem heartfelt even when they stretch credulity to the breaking point.
Hughes grows sharper after Rosalind transforms herself into Ganymede and begins to school Orlando in the ways of love, but she’s still finding her footing. Who can blame her, though, when all the players still seem to be getting acquainted? Partner casting has its fans (mostly among actors who like the flexibility it provides them), but it has yet to prove effective in my experience with Shakespeare.
PEASCODS cast member Luis Kelly-Duarte carries castmate Matthew Gallenstein as Brian Abraham, right, watches in “As You Like It” in Glendale.
CELIA (Desirée Mee Jung, left) with Rosalind (Sally Hughes) in the Antaeus Theatre Company production at Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center.