Painterly mise-en-scène and acting perfection are hallmarks of the Washington, DC, Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of As You Like It, directed by Michael Attenborough. The Dresser saw Rembrandt portraits in the sepia inflection of the opening set accented by character groupings that occur throughout the entire play and include costumes not easily placed in any timeframe. Particularly, memorable were the bronze and copper-colored bouffant satin gowns worn by Rosalind (played by Zoë Waites) and Celia (Adina Verson). Jonathan Fensom's color complimenting set and costume designs give the minimalist rich brown walls of court versus the silky skirt-like painted curtains of Arden Forest a unity that moves attention to the troop of fine players.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE TREES?
Here the Dresser pauses to note that Fensom can easily justify his approach for the painted curtains versus trees--real or fake--in these lines:
Where dwell you, pretty youth?
With this shepherdess, my sister; here in the
skirts of the forest, like fringe upon a petticoat.
SAME-SEX CONTACT SPORT
Running just under three hours including one fifteen-minute intermission, Shakespeare's comic story of romantic love, family discord, political strife, a cross-dressing female, kissing girl cousins too close for comfort, and high society versus country mores is the perfect landscape for contemporary audiences as "mainstream" America passes laws to support LGBT individuals, partners, and communities. Questions about acceptable male-on-male and female-on-female contact arise frequently in this production that includes a possibly to-the-death wrestling match between Orlando (Andrew Veenstra) and Orlando's brother's wrestler Charles (Ian Bedford). Brother Oliver (Gregory Wooddell) has not treated Orlando in a manner befitting a courtier and Orlando confronted his elder brother (actually put him in a choke hold) for failing to properly educate and provide for him. So Oliver tells Charles he doesn't mind if Charles breaks Orlando's neck, except Orlando vanquishes the much bigger man.
The wrestling as directed by Fight Director Robb Hunter then spectacularly sets up other same-sex contact scenes--Orlando holding a knife to the throat of a man he meets in Arden Forest when his loyal but elderly servant collapses from hunger and Orlando is forced to find food, Rosalind suggestively kneeling between the legs of her cousin Celia as they talk face to face, and most confusing is Rosalind disguised as the boy Ganymede but, having convinced Orlando he should role play his love for Rosalind by interacting with Ganymede as if Ganymede were Rosalind. The interaction flies out of control when Ganymede passionately kisses Orlando and Orlando recoils in horror, believing a man has kissed him.
A MAP OF WHO'S WHO
For the record, four overlapping groups of people play against each other:
Group 1 is Orlando & his brother Oliver (plus Orlando's servant Adam (Jeff Brooks), Oliver's servant Dennis (Luis Alberto Gonzalez) and Charles, the wrestler),
Group 2 is Rosalind, Celia, Celia father Duke Frederick (Timothy D. Stickney) (plus Touchstone (Andrew Weems), a fool to Frederick's court and servant to Celia and Rosalind),
Group 3 is Rosalind's father Duke Senior (Timothy D. Stickney, playing a dual role. The two dukes are brothers) plus his band of men that includes guitar-playing Amiens (Matthew Schleigh) an unnamed First Lord (Todd Scofield) and the moody philosopher Jaques (Derek Smith), and
Group 4 is the country people--shepherd Corin (the engaging scene stealing Happy Anderson), shepherd Silvius (Stephen Pilkington), country woman Audrey (Tara Giordano, her dirty legs marry well with her backward but charming behavior), Vicar Sir Oliver Martext (Jeff Brooks, playing a dual role), shepherdess Phoebe (Valeri Mudek, a master at alternating frowns and radiant smiles), and country fellow William (Jonathan Feuer). Moving silently between the groups until the last scene of the play is the character called Hymen (Te'La Curtis Lee), Greek god of marriage. Attenborough chooses to make this character female, have her act as servant to Rosalind, and to have her be seen throughout the play. Curtis Lee presents a striking presence in her appearance, which is unlike the other characters (her costume suggests a stereotypical Greek goddess), and the way she carries herself on her bare feet.
It is a big cast and the actors in this production, even the minor ones, make their characters memorable. Just before Rosalind delivers the epilogue that ends the play, the entire company, many of the players in bare feet, is on stage for a joyful dance that seems part traditional African and part Macarena. The Dresser takes this as a dance inspired by the barefooted Hymen, who has one foot in the "real" world of this story as Rosalind's servant and the the other foot in the magical realm of the gods. Along with the costumes of no particular period, the choreography seems to reach across the centuries that would separate modern day audiences from Shakespeare's days at the Globe Theatre.
ATTENBOROUGH'S STEINIAN APPROACH
The Dresser, who reads a lot of Gertrude Stein and knows that Stein had a deep interest in As You Like It since Stein quoted an extensive passage from Act V, Scene 2 as epigraph to her blatant lesbian novel Q.E.D., was surprised at how Steinian Attenborough's production is. While Stein is known for the influence of Pablo Picasso's and George Braque's cubism on her writing, what few people know was how broad her reach over the centuries is. In academic terms, this reach, which shockingly might take the reader back to the Middle Ages, plays to her dimensionality. Similarly, Attenborough, through his choice of set-costume designer, choreographer, composer who chooses to have his strolling musician play on a modern guitar (versus a lute), mix of ethnic players, zooms the audience forward in time. The Dresser particularly finds the scenic suggestion of classical art (Rembrandt-like and useful in depicting the court versus the country) and the abstract Forest of Eden (where the rustic lines up with the magical), particularly Steinian because it breaks logical flow.