Love is merely a madness; there is a madness running rampant through the forest of Arden— strewing its favors hither and thither, mostly in the form of poetic verse all about the stage and the house of The Folger Theatre. As You Like It, the Bard’s great love story among the comedies, comes to the 2017-side of the season under the Direction of Gaye Taylor Upchurch and brings with it a thorough examination of love in many flavorful varieties. Well-intended, the production speaks to the everyman as well as the modern man on the courses of civility, love, and kinship among thy fellow man.
For as many impressive things as the production has to offer, there is a mire of confusion to wade through upon first glance, owing largely to the disconnect in aesthetic approaches and environmental factors. Initially Scenic Designer John McDermott seems to leave the broad naturalistic play space of the Folger Theatre Stage almost barren, though there are subtleties of projected images obscured across the background. This in itself is a reasonable choice but fails to ground the production in a specific reality owing to the lack of other tethering factors in various design elements of the performance. So too is the trouble with the sartorial selection featured in the show. Costume Designer Charlotte Palmer-Lane has created marvelous wonders that seem to fit no time and no place while echoing a mismatching series of ideas and notions. Palmer-Lane’s finest work is easily identifiable as the loud and vibrant costumes reserved for Touchstone, who regardless of location looks every part the dapper fool in these tasteful threads. Praiseworthy, in addition to the fool’s fashions, are the ease with which the Court of Duke Senior and the Court of Duke Frederick’s costumes can be flipped from one to the next, as the cast is doubled up in these roles.
The show has a great many disjointed functions as well; the live music crafted by Composer Heather Christian has a myriad of southern influences, a bit like a southbound rambling tumbleweed collecting bits of musical inspiration from gospel, blues, bluegrass, and bayou styles as the play progresses. While this makes for amusing dance routines on Choreographer Alexandra Beller’s part, it feels wholly out of sync with the production and jumbles the potential the performative aspects could have had if they were more soundly tied together. Each of these elements— be they aesthetic, aural, or movement-based— are superb on their own. The choreography is clean and captures the spirited nature of the play’s events, the costumes are pleasing to the eye, and the music inspires a feeling of giddy movement to the ear, however they fail to mesh with one another on a cohesive level, giving the production an incoherent verve which unfortunately pulls some of the players out of balance with one another.
Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch has a broad sweeping vision of what’s happening in this play of romances and love. While Upchurch clearly focuses on the relationships developed between the characters— in particular the kinship and sororal love between Rosalind and Celia— and this reads clearly, other large elements of plot and character development sink readily into the perplexing mire of too many concepts trying and failing to connect with one another. Upchurch’s strengths in the production are the way the individual characters connect with one another and the play itself, but in many cases they feel as if they are connecting to different instances of the play. Orlando connects to a more present-day version of As You Like It, while Duke Senior and his court exist in a timeframe some 20 years back, Rosalind and Celia play in a period much closer to when the play was penned and Touchstone appears to play as a timeless fool. These disconnects, despite the impeccable character development and fulfillment of their story arcs, are a distracting downfall to the overall production.
Despite the mismatched eras and disconnected concepts and thematic approaches, the performances themselves are quite strong. Jeff Keogh, the withered old man servant Adam and later the by-crickey accent-laden Corin, gives sturdy character portrayals of both these men, easing the plot forward with little moments here and there. So too does Kimberly Chatterjee as Audrey, giving Touchstone someone to simper over. Chatterjee’s focuses her personal spotlight on mime work and physical comedy, much like Brian Reisman, playing the lovesick Silvius. Reisman’s comedy work is expressed largely in his exaggerated facial expressions, whenever it comes to any form of attention paid his character by Phoebe (Dani Stoller.) And Stoller is not without her melotheatrical approach to the cameo character either, pulling her energies into the humorous debate over how to pursue ‘Ganymede.’
Other roles of note in this vein of carrying the comedy and humors of the play include Charles (Will Hayes), the court’s wrestler, who makes a macho-man show out of his go-round with Orlando, and Jaques (Tom Story) whose approach to comedy is much more readily steeped in the morose melancholy of his nature. Story is intentionally bland in his portrayal of Jaques, which suits the way he interacts with the other characters, Touchstone in particular. Leading the musical stomp-about blues in the woods is one of Story’s finer moments in the production as it tickles the funny bone while still bearing the emotional weight of his character’s self-inflicted plight.
The Dukes (Allen McCullough) are brothers with no love lost between them. McCullough does a fine job of creating two strikingly different characters in his dueling roles. As Duke Frederick, the vile, relentless and nasty corruption of all things unpleasant, McCullough delivers the character with vocal grit and a great deal of unrestrained anger that articulates itself with rigid posture and biting textual delivery. As the gentle Duke Senior, taking umbrage in the Forest of Arden, McCullough showcases his versatility by keeping similar mannerisms to his other duke character but subverting them with kindness, gentility, and a serenity that permeates the overall atmosphere of his court in the woods.
Much like the Duke Brothers, Oliver (Michael Glenn) and Orlando (Lorenzo Roberts) be not fond of their affections for one another. Glenn shows a tremendous shift in character, though is seldom featured in the work, making the rewarding growth that much more pleasant to witness. Roberts, playing the love stricken sap who pines pitiably for Rosalind, is the most masterful when it comes to expressing the emotional intention of Shakespeare’s words, even if his character appears to exist in a present-day world all its own. Possessed of a giddy spirit that oft rivals that of Rosalind (Lindsay Alexandra Carter) herself, Roberts contributes a great deal to the scenes they share, keeping the audience invested in the development of their relationship.
Carter, as the equally smitten Rosalind, is delightful in the role. Grounded in the lunacy and madness that is love, she delivers the character with a swift and recognizable justice, keeping good council with Celia (Antoinette Robinson.) The pair are like inseparable sisters despite only being cousins and the way they play a scene off one another creates a delectable honesty in both of their characters. Carter’s great many interactions with Roberts’ Orlando are some of the most compelling in the production, as it should be for As You Like It.
Stealing the thunder of the show with his wit, exceptional comic timing and timeless nature, Aaron Krohn makes for a simply smashing Touchstone. Quirky and invested in his approach to reverse logic in the scene with Corin at the top of the second act, Krohn showcases a great versatility in this dynamic portrayal of Touchstone, making him a multi-layered and well-developed fool rather than a standard run of the mill jokester. Though he doesn’t almost spontaneously combust the way Carter’s Rosalind does at the prospect of love, nor does he blanche and moan the way Story’s Jaques does over— well, everything— Krohn has a myriad of emotional tactics in play when it comes to experiencing each moment in which his character thrives.
Ultimately a good performance, if the production is disjointed from itself, there are a great many moments of good fortune to be had throughout the course of the evening.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes with one intermission
As You Like It plays through March 5, 2017 at the Folger Theatre in the Folger Shakespeare Library— 201 E. Capitol Street SE in Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 544-7077 or purchase them online.
To read the interview with Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch, click here.