SU Drama’s ‘As You Like It’ the way we like it
Lead roles are outstanding in the department’s cross-dressing, gender-bending final production of the season
It’s awfully easy to confuse Shakespeare’s comedies.
Is As You Like It the one with the two brothers tossed up in Sardinia, or wherever? Or is it the play where some of the people get turned into animals and the 99-percent occupy a rude comedy? Or how about when the bad duke sends our hero and heroine into the woods and the one girl dresses like a guy and the one guy loves the guy when he was still a girl and writes poems about her and then plasters them all over the… whoa… that’s the one currently at the SU Drama Department — which for this excursion into Shakespearean cross-dressing and gender-bending is at the Archbold Theater and not the Storch (which currently houses The Brothers Size).
The production moves so quickly throughout its 2 hours and 40 minutes that it manages to make time pass about half as long as some two-hour Christmas-type productions I’ve seen.
And there’s a lot of action to stuff into that time. Strong and handsome Orlando is kicked out of the evil Duke Frederick’s court. Soon enough, perky-pretty and strong-willed Rosalind, who has fallen precipitously in love with Orlando, is also sent into exile, basically because evil dukes are like that. The duke’s daughter, Celia, goes with her because she and Rosalind have been, like, BFF since they were babies. And besides, Shakespeare needed somebody for Rosalind to talk with and keep the plot moving. As they head into the Forest of Arden Roz disguises herself as a man, because that’s what Shakespeare liked to have his young male actors do, while faithful Celia dresses down for a trip into the forest.
By now, Orlando has been writing love poems to Roz and tacking them up thither and yon all over the woods. Elsewhere in the forest is the good Duke Senior — bad Duke Frederick’s exiled brother and Roz’s father who, extolling the joys of life in the wild, tells us famously that “sweet are the virtues of adversity.” With him are his rustically dressed courtiers, including the ever-melancholy Jaques (“All the world’s a stage,” etc.).
Also wandering around are a bunch of local residents, none of them terribly bright, but they are ever at the ready for various well-born types to interact with. Amazingly, Orlando happens to run into Roz just hanging out in that big forest. More amazingly, he doesn’t even recognize his own true love, costumed as she is as a male. But he does go along with her/his clever idea to pretend to be a girl named Rosalind (hence, girl dresses as a man and then pretends to be herself) so Orlando can practice his wooing skills with her/him/her. (Or, as done on the Elizabethan stage, him/her/him/her.)
This is the main stage directing premiere of SU Drama Department Chairman (his second year here), Ralph Zito. Zito elicits outstanding performances from a young cast: verve, pace, élan and style are the order of the day. Zito surgically excised enough of the marginal business to cut the running time without doing serious damage to the play.
The cast works hard, but he and they make it look easy — a rare but much appreciated quality. Among the standouts: a lovely, pert and flirty Rosalind (Hayley Palmaer) who ties with one other cast member for the most graceful hand gestures in the production; the other set of hands belongs to tall, somehow enigmatic Olivia Gjurich as moody Jacques, a male in the original but a woman here — and why not? It works just fine.
Throughout the production there’s careful attention paid to small gestures, and there’s nicely paced movement about the stage — the kind of things both large and small that in sum create a sense of high quality work.
There are delightful comic turns by Sammy Lopez (Touchstone, a very foppish fool), Sidney Patrick (as Audrey, for whom the fool lusts and vice versa), Helene Morse (Phebe who pines for Roz, thinking she’s a he) and Joseph Fierburg (Silvius, the shepherd who pines for Phebe).
Kyle Anderson’s Orlando is played nicely beamish and boyish — not easy to do in a role that demands he be mostly a foil for Rosalind.
There’s some delightful stage business when Celia (Rebeccah Singer) unrolls and unrolls and almost drops and… unrolls again a scroll that brings us up to date about what’s been going on back at court.
This is one of the few productions I’ve ever seen (other than at the Royal National Theatre in London) that uses a stage turntable as one of the major players. Credit scenic designer Alexander Koziara for a well-integrated device to help create segues between the scenes. Director Zito uses it to maximum effect — as when Orlando on one side of the slowly moving turntable fishes out the locket given him by Rosalind, while simultaneously 180 degrees away on the other side Rosalind sighs over a mask Orlando wore early on. Watching them, you can’t help feeling that love is grand even when the two lovers fear they’ll never see each other again.
The costumes by Maria Marrero are 18th century rather than Elizabethan, which works just fine establishing a sense of distance in time plus a certain elegance for the young cast. And As You Like It takes place in a timeless time, anyway.
There’s touchingly romantic music for this, one of Shakespeare’s most musical of plays, by Sound Designer Kate Foretek.
I wasn’t wild about a wimpy-looking wrestler for Orlando to go up against. The match, staged as a modern professional wrestling bout done in slow motion, seems too heavy in a production that for the most part is light and gentle. There’s a fair amount of variation in the quality of the performances, notably some of those in minor roles needing seasoning until they get to the genuinely professional level of most of the leads. And there are some really weird, near-homosexual moments between Orlando and Roz who is at that point, he believes, a man — while she and we know she ain’t.
It’s not easy for American performers to do justice to Shakespeare’s English. Fortunately the cast doesn’t try, choosing instead fast and basically standard American English that clips along well, except for a few stumbles: Some dialogue gets lost at times and Jaques’ last speech spoken from nearly offstage down left to rear of the theater gets thrown away. And the “seven ages of man” soliloquy seemed to me to be more mannered than melancholic.
Then there’s the problem with the ending — not the production’s, but Shakespeare’s. The slap-dash, stitched-together ending wraps everything up not very neatly, with off-stage conversions and the sudden entrance of Hymen, goddess of marriage (sweet voiced Samantha Blinn) to tie things up. But then again, if Will hadn’t finished it off so abruptly the play would still be going on and on without ever ending. And the original Old Globe would still be standing on the south bank of the Thames.
But well-crafted endings aren’t necessary for comedies to delight us. And this one does exactly that. The bottom line for this, the department’s final production of the season, is that it imparts a delightful sense that at all times we are watching the creation anew of a lovely artifice done artfully well.
What: As You Like It, by William Shakespeare, performed by the Syracuse University Department of Drama
Where: The Archbold Theatre, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
When: May 3, 4, 5, 11 and 12 (Matinee at 2 p.m. for May 12 production; others at 8 p.m.)
Length: Two hours and 40 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission
Tickets: Adults, $18; seniors and students, $16; rush tickets $8 one hour before each performance
Call: (315) 443-3275 or visit SyracuseStage.org
Family guide: Suitable for all ages