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Splendor In The Grass 

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As You Like It

Shakespeare Repertory,

at the Ruth Page Theater

Fresh breezes blow through Shakespeare's most vernal comedy. What A Midsummer Night's Dream is to summer, As You Like It is to spring (though, like love, it suits all seasons). Both comedies employ rustic retreats--a wood near Athens, the Forest of Arden--as the perfect neutral ground: here lovers, free as their surroundings, test each other through spells or disguises, unburdened by the constraints of court or courtship.

Regrettably, fresh breezes don't always blow through revivals of As You Like It; its magic can succumb to directors who miss the romance and ram home the easy class contrasts--court versus country--that fuel the humor. Touchstone's sneering dismissals of the "country copulatives" and melancholy Jaques' puncturing of the pastoral idyll are amusing, but they're counterweights to the play's obsession: measuring love against the standard of nature.

The first and final delight of Shakespeare Repertory's wondrous production is its arboreal look: nature is here, beautifully and bountifully. Michael Philippi's splendid set goes from greensward (with a gravel pit for the wrestling match) to a gorgeous forest glade with swaying trees bathed in Joe Tilford's dappled light, a vista worthy of Watteau's or Fragonard's cultivated fetes champetres, and magical enough to explain the transformations of the play's final scenes.

But this perfect pictorial staging--the American debut of British director David Gilmore--is not set in the 18th century but during France's Second Empire: the tableaux formed by parasoled ladies in crinoline and gentlemen in earth-colored suits (by Karin Kopischke) recall Winslow Homer's croquet matches, Manet's Le dejeuner sur l'herbe, and other leisured fantasies. Few Chicago productions offer such a changing gallery of images. And the updating fits: the setting is not the tangled, treacherous island of The Tempest but a domesticated, even bourgeois Eden, a place that sweetens adversity with honesty--the forest can feel pleasant but is essentially indifferent.

Significantly, assorted unnatural cruelties bring the characters to this innocent place: a man usurps power from his brother the duke, then banishes him; a daughter, Rosalind, is forced to leave home for the Forest of Arden, where her father is enjoying his exile; and Oliver, elder son of a member of the court, expels his brother Orlando, who also finds himself in the forest, where his love for Rosalind comes into full flower. Rosalind, artfully disguised as a boy, teasingly tests the bashful Orlando, who's happily bewildered. Just as we do, they fall under the spell of the setting.

Indeed, it seems easy for Gilmore's performers to live up to their bucolic surroundings--or to stand out from them, as when David Darlow's magnificently misanthropic Jaques rejects the place. Arden's bowers bring out all that's best in Mariann Mayberry's Rosalind, a delightfully androgynous lover who's both infatuated and too smart to try to hide her infatuation for long, and in Tom Daugherty's valiant Orlando, good-hearted (and good-looking) enough to qualify as nature's nobleman. Just as escaping the simulated passions of a rigid court frees the lovers to find deeper feelings, Rosalind's abandonment of billowing Victorian bloomers for trim trousers opens up whole new sexual possibilities. Mayberry's joy in this sudden freedom makes Rosalind's reverse courtship of Orlando one of the freshest breezes in the play.

Deborah Staples as the charming Celia, graciously suggesting a demure Victorian maiden who wishes she too could shed her skirts, makes us regret her conventional alliance with Orlando's reformed elder brother (a sturdily unflashy Matt Penn). Shakespeare's other amorous couples mate more than they court. Little romance is wasted between William Dick's opportunistic Touchstone (less funny than the part, given his insistently emphatic delivery) and Tina Thuerwachter's ruttish Audrey. Their crudeness can be justified as so much grist for the groundlings, but many may wonder about the advisability of playing the moonstruck shepherd Silvius and his unfeeling bumpkin sweetheart Phebe as refugees from Hee Haw. Edward Jemison as Silvius outdoes Gomer Pyle in an oddly endearing but clearly condescending performance. And what are these hillbilly homespuns doing in 19th-century France anyway?

But ultimately Gilmore's staging triumphs because his actors' feelings are inspired by their lines, not pasted on as they speak. Even better, this resourceful director repeatedly finds telling pieces of stage business that, an instant later, you realize were in Shakespeare all along. I'd give examples, but it's better to see Gilmore's cast suit the action to the word.

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