As You Like It In The Depression Up The Hill
APT’s Deftly Balanced Shakespearian Comedy In Spring Green
As You Like It is one of those comedies. Shakespeare sometimes wrote really, really long works featuring multiple subplots. Many different characters designed to appeal to many different types of people drift about, occasionally colliding into each other. Things often wrapped-up in a hurry at the end. Sometimes there was a wedding. Sometimes there were many weddings. As You Like It is one of those comedies. The difficulty with those comedies often lies in inconsistency. One subplot might overshadow another due to a particularly good performance or a particularly appealing dynamic between two actors. Running now through October 3rd in Spring Green, Wisconsin, The American Players Theatre’s production of As You Like It is one of those rare productions that manages a staggeringly good balance between all the different ccmedic subplots breezing through the stage over the course of a performance.
The single most jarring aspect of the production is the decision to place it during the Great Depression. There are all kinds of interesting stylistic and thematic reasons why this works that really aren’t worth going into here. As usually happens with well-executed anachronism in a Shakespeare production, there are some particularly clever interpretations for production design. At the heart of the whole thing is a really well-balanced, remarkably deft cast that move through the story with a graceful pacing. Director Tim Ocel has done a brilliant job of bringing everything together.
The central romance around which all of the rest of the play seems to rotate is that of Rosalind and Orlando. She meets him as he is preparing for a wrestling match with a man clearly stronger, more powerful and much more menacing than he. Clearly he’s the underdog here. Rosalind is played with a respectable amount of charm by Hillary Clemens. Orlando is played by Matt Schwader. Looking ahead, there don’t seem to be any more APT shows that feature Matt Schwader as a romantic lead. One more and he would’ve had a leading male hat trick this season … Schwader’s performance as romantic lead here is much more satisfying than it is in APT’s All’s Well That Ends Well, which runs concurrently with this production. Orlando is drawn to be far more respectable than Helena’s love, giving Schwader a great deal more to work with.
The match between Orlando and the wrestler ( a guy named Charles) quickly gets under way. In the role of Charles the Wrestler, Michael Huftile looks suitably enormous next to Schwader and it’s really clear from the beginning exactly who is likely to come out on top. Orlando’s come from behind victory doesn’t come across really clearly. On the whole, the ending of the match fels a bit weak. The fight choreography didn’t manage a convincing enough resolution, but this is a relatively minor concern as nearly every other aspect of the production was executed as well as it was.
Suffice it to say, the love that grows between Orlando and Rosalind isn’t looked on too favorably by those in power. In typically powerful form as a figure of weighty authority, Brian Mani plays the man in charge . . . referred to as Duke Frederick in the script, though the title hardly seems to fit with the well-executed depression-era production design courtesy of scenic designer Andrew Boyce and the Costume Designer known as B. Modern.
It all fits together quite well. The most ingenious meeting between conception, costuming and action has to be that of Touchstone. Touchstone is a clown—one of those profoundly wise fools found loitering about Shakespeare’s scripts . . . the decision was to have Touchstone wearing the single most clown-like outfit to be had during the great depression: that of the golfer. The garish plaids of and strange patterns found on golfers of the era make for a really interesting clown look that doesn’t feel like much of a betrayal against the rest of the production design. Wearing the costume is David Daniel—a talented comic actor who takes remarkable well to the role. There’s a rubbery comic aspect to Daniel’s performance . . . he’s kind of taking on the overall personality of a character in an early Warner Brothers cartoon—delivering some of Shakespeares wit in an impressively slick style. There’s one sting of monologue that Daniel does in a series of highly anachronistic 20th century impressions including Nixon and, I believe, Cagney if I’m not mistaken. Weird. But somehow it worked and Daniel ends up making one of the more memorable performances in the production.
The opposite extreme of Daniel’s Touchstone is, of course, James Ridge as aspiring comic Jaques. It may often be overlooked just how difficult a role Jaques’ is. It may not be a hugee part of the plot of As You Like It, but Jaques does perform the second most famous monologue Shakespeare ever wrote. Granted, an actor playing Jaques doesn’t have the marathon performance given to an actor playing Hamlet, but the guy playing Hamlet has plenty of stage time to warm-up before uttering those ever-daunting lines, “To be or not to be.” The actor playing Touchstone barely stumbles out onstage before he has to utter, “All the world’s a stage,” and all of those terribly trite thingts he has to say after that. The thing is—the speech is actually written brilliantly enough to have singlehandedly ushered the statement into the realm of cliché. James Ridge is a very, very talented actor. He manages a remarkable amount of angst in the role. The only person who could truly do the character justice is one actually living through the most troubling existential crisis common to all of us: adolescence. Far from his own adolescence, Ridge actually does a surprisingly impressive job of rendering the intellectual exhaustion that weighs Jaques down. It’s a very, very subtle performance and Ridge plays it in brilliantly minimalist form. He does such a good job of being passive and philosophical that it’s easy to lose his performance in and amidst all of the rest of what’s going on. Even the “All the world’s a stage,” speech works here.
Orlando and Rosalind eventually meet in exile. Because this is Shakesepare, he doesn’t know he’s run into Rosalind, as she is pretending to be a boy so as not to cause any suspicion. The dynamic between Schwader and Clemens work particularly well in the course of their interactions while Rosalind is incognito. Clemens lights-up under the complexity of a woman pretending to be a man and exploring gender identity roles in an era long before the bewildering complexity of the modern world.
The big reveal at the end doesn’t quite work as well as one might hope. Ideally, Rosalind walks-in as herself and everyone realizes that this isn’t a boy and everyone understands the implications of this instantly. It’s kind of a tall order for any production, but there was something missing from Clemens’ walk down the aisle that didn’t quite work. It’s a really tricky scene to stage. The production handles it quite well, but the reveal isn’t quite as dramatic as it should be to really wrap things up.
Just as it begins to feel like the show is about to end on a waek note, the whole thing comes to a close with Paul Bentzen as an impeccably radiant Deus Ex Machina. Everyone’s assembled there onstage appropriately coupled and suddenly there’s Bentzen with a blindingly white beard bestowing his blessing on everything. It’s one of the weakest moments in any Shakespeare story and Bentzen actually manages to make it work . . . a suitably dramatic ending to a remarkably well-balanced production.
The American Players Theatre’s production of As You Like It runs through October 3rd Up The Hill in Spring Green, Wisconsin.