- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2003

The heralded collaboration between the Kennedy Center and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) gets off to a funereal start with a remote, muted production of William Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, “As You Like It.”
  The play, which extols outdoor life as the path to authenticity, has a stuffy indoor feeling under the direction of newcomer Gregory Thompson. It has little fresh air and liberation, especially in the first act, which has all the gloomy trappings of tragedy.
  This melancholy atmosphere is reinforced by the production’s high-concept design a stark black, white and gray setting that features columns looking like huge, menacing pickup sticks. There are few set changes, and your eye quickly wearies of the restricted palette.
  The staging has the actors playing many scenes at the back, which not only makes their voices sound distorted and echoey but increases the emotional distance between actor and audience. Granted, the Eisenhower Theatre’s proscenium stage has its problems, but to have the cast perform in a rear space swathed in black bunting which swallows sound seems ridiculous.
  There is also much standing around stock-still and delivering lines, especially in the dreary first act, which makes the three-hour-plus production seem eternal. You almost begin to fear that the actors’ shoes are glued to the floorboards. You want to plead with the cast, “Get up and move around. You are in the forest, for Pete’s sake.”
  You have to admire the RSC for trying a novel, ironic approach to one of Shakespeare’s most florid and love-saturated comedies, but “As You Like It” is about nature and naturalness and its opposites, disguise and artifice so it would stand to reason that the play should have an overall air of lightness and levity.
  The play’s setting, the Forest of Arden, is meant to be a transforming place, where people can be themselves or not, in the case of the heroine, Rosalind (Nina Sosanya), who adopts the identity of a noble young man named Ganymede. Here, the magic that dwells in the forest of Arden magic that can reunite brothers and induce all sorts of love matches is lost.
  That is not to say that “As You Like It” is a dirge from beginning to end. Some bright spots emerge in this tale of banishment and redemption. Banishment from court sets the play’s action in motion, as the usurping Duke Frederick (Michael Hadley) kicks out his brother, the Duke Senior (Michael Hadley) and his attending lords. The latter’s daughter, Rosalind, stays on for a while because of her great bond with Celia (Naomi Frederick), Frederick’s daughter, but Rosalind, in turn, is forced to flee into the forest, loyally accompanied by Celia and the court jester, Touchstone (John Killoran).
  Meanwhile, in the De Boys family, the nasty Oliver (Aaron Neil) has an enduring grudge against his naturally noble younger brother, Orlando (Martin Hutson), and gives him the boot. After a brief interlude where Orlando successfully grapples with Duke Frederick’s wrestler and catches the eye of Rosalind he, too, escapes to Arden with his faithful retainer, Adam (Tim Barlow).
  Even though it is winter when everyone arrives, the forest is a healing place. There, the Duke Senior is living the manly camping-out life there is lots of singing, hunting and hoisting tankards of ale. One of his band of men is the not-so-merry Jaques (David Fielder), whose life of learning and experience has only deepened his bitterness. Jaques has the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech. When Mr. Fielder delivers it with a biting, garrulous world-weariness, the play briefly crackles to life.
  Orlando fits right in with the guys, using his leisure time to adorn the trees with second-rate poetry about Rosalind. As for Rosalind, disguised as the boy Ganymede, she is having a high old time acting masculine and coaching Orlando in the ways of mature, steady love. Celia has taken to country life, as well, baking scones and wearing shawls, while Touchstone has fallen in love with a social climbing goatherd named Audrey (Patricia Gannon). The actors play the various goats and sheep in these scenes, baaing, chewing their cuds and milling around on all fours a much-needed playful touch.
  Nothing is uncomplicated in a Shakespearean romantic comedy, so mistaken identity, mismatched love and seemingly untoward feelings dominate until all is set right at the end. There is even a deux ex machina of sorts, as the goddess of marriage, Hymen (Amy Finegan) presides over the multiple nuptials. Here, the high concept rears its head again, as Hymen appears as a New Age-type projection and the whole thing comes off like a bad Enya music video.
  No real fault can be found in the acting, as it is consistent and competent throughout. Miss Sosanya is a poised Rosalind, her innate expansiveness coming into full bloom when she pretends to switch genders. For all her purported love for Orlando, the strongest and most palpable bond is between Rosalind and the usually insipid Celia, who, as played by Miss Frederick, actually has some backbone.
  Mr. Killoran is acrobatic and inventive as the clown Touchstone and is one of the few cast members who literally gets the play off the ground. Some touching grace notes are also sounded by Mr. Barlow as Orlando’s elderly servant.
  Although there are glints of sunlight, the production’s predominating gloom mutes the passion and fine feeling of “As You Like It.”
  WHAT: “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare
  WHERE: Eisenhower Theatre, Kennedy Center
  WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. Thursdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 18.
  TICKETS: $70-$25
  PHONE: 202/467-4600

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