As You Like It (American Shakespeare Center) @ The Blackfriars Playhouse

‘Don’t worry. Be happy’ sang Amiens (Kenzie Ross), as Orlando (Kayla Carter) and Adam (Summer England) were welcomed into the forest court of Duke Senior (Topher Embrey). The simple song, strummed out on a uke, acted as a salve after this production’s main moment of tension, during which a desperate Orlando had vaulted onto the Blackfriars stage and wielded a knife at the exiles gathered around a picnic blanket. Even Jaques (Annabelle Rollison), somewhat teary-eyed after the Seven Ages speech, joined in the refrain, taking the same comfort from this song that he had seemed to genuinely take earlier from Amiens’ singing. The lightness of touch in the service of creating good feelings characterized Jen Wineman’s small-scale production, and if this meant that the stakes often felt quite low, it also led to an optimistic take on community and sincerity as the route to healing and reconciliation.

In service of keeping things light, the court of Duke Frederick (Embrey) was not the oppressive, authoritarian regime of so many productions, but in many ways indistinguishable from the Forest of Arden. Partly as a result of the extensive doubling with a seven-person cast, the space between court and forest was heavily elided, and people seemed to enjoy freedoms and experience hardships in both worlds. The main concession to Frederick’s authority was an embroidered ‘F’ on many of the otherwise individualized costumes, but it was left to Embrey to utilize his powerful presence and sonorous voice to impose Frederick’s harsher pronouncements, his anger emerging from within his body rather than from the outward trappings of power. Similarly, Oliver (Michael Manocchio) was relaxed in pastels and shorts, even while giving a hoe to his younger brother to get him back to work after Orlando had joined in the pre-show rendition of Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’. Oliver felt he was a more formidable presence than he was, stepping up to his little brother as if prepared to fight him before having his arm twisted behind his back. The threats of this court were obstacles to those dependent on them, but the obstacles were temporary, not existential.

This sense of contained stakes aligned with the dominant aesthetic of the production, which evoked 90s teen comedy, most overtly Clueless in Rosalind’s (Constance Swain) plaid skirt, Celia’s (Ross) Hello Kitty t-shirt, and the teeny backpacks that both sported. The evocation of a genre whose stakes are domestic – girls working out how to defy their dads and get the boys – enabled the production to foreground its female-identifying heroines and their self-actualization as the core plot. It also, interestingly, meant that even though two of the production’s couples were played by female-identifying actors (Orlando and Rosalind, and Silvius and Phebe, played by Rollison and England), the production itself felt very straight for an As You Like It; in drawing on a genre that is quite rigidly coded in its gendered stereotypes, the sight of two women kissing one another on the stage was inevitably filtered through the heteronormative stock types being evoked.

The elite world of the rich high school kids was also part of a broad alignment of Duke Frederick’s court with the trappings of city life, specifically the East coast in the accent of Rollison’s Brooklyn-based, tracksuit-wearing Charles the wrestler, who was training a quickly exhausted Oliver while they talked. The idea of a metropolitan elite paid off most entertainingly in Manocchio’s urbane Touchstone. While this role suffered most from the cutting needed to get the play down to two hours, Manocchio’s desert-dry sarcasm, unsmiling barbs, and general air of superiority created an especially snobbish Touchstone. He was first revealed spilling golf balls over the stage as he entered with a bag of clubs, and played as the acerbic best friend rather than a servant (meaning that when he entered carrying both a dozen bags and Celia, he was visibly put upon in multiple senses of the term). Setting up Touchstone in this way allowed him to have particular fun with Embrey’s overall-wearing Corin, an aw-shucksing genial shepherd who just needed a gas station to round out the picture.

As emblematised by Corin, Arden was distinctively The South. The interlopers to the forest, Duke Senior and his court, were hippies, with scarves and throws, big glasses and flower garlands, and constant vaping absolutely capturing the elite on vacation. The production’s time period was allowed to wander; these hippies were sixties throwbacks; the dominant costumes were nineties; but smartphones and other devices also suggested an updating (poor Jacques de Boys was rendered as a series of text messages read out by a delighted Duke). Rather than having a consistent setting, all of the stage of the Forest of Arden became the sprawling American South, drawing on a range of stereotypes. Rollison’s Silvius was a cheery, somewhat gormless cowboy, paired with England’s stetson-and-boots-wearing cowgirl Phebe. Audrey (also England), meanwhile, was a stereotype of the white working class, wearing hot pants and drinking cans of beer, and pissing in a pot while sticking her head out of the tiring house curtain. A reliance on instantly recognisable stock figures is often a feature of productions featuring heavy doubling, and the cast worked hard to try to ensure that the laughs didn’t come at the expense of representations of the South (always something to be avoided, especially in a theatre that is in the South), but rather enabled the production’s moments of culture clash, where Touchstone’s detached urbanity was what came off as out of place rather than the comfortable way the foresters inhabited their bodies (especially in Embrey’s slow, chuckling exits from the stage). By the time Touchstone and Audrey were stripping off onstage and getting down on all fours, city and country had met in an uninhibited expression of lust, suggesting even Touchstone could get over his sense of foolishness at being in Arden.

Within this entertaining world, Jaques cut a more sombre figure. Rollison’s spin on the slacker figure of teen comedies could have leaned into the obvious stoner stereotypes, but instead this Jaques played as an earnest outsider. The desire to hear more of Amiens’s singing, his head resting on her knee, was pleaded sincerely; the seven ages speech may have started with some joking but, by the time England’s Adam was brought on, shaking and tired, Jaques seemed crushed. This connection between Jaques and Adam was revisited later in a scene I struggled to parse, when Jaques called forward Adam to receive the carcass of a deer, draped around his shoulders, according Adam a significance in relation to this ritual that I hadn’t noticed being set up elsewhere. The comparison it forced between Adam and Jaques, though, was interesting. Adam was played as a comic figure throughout, limbs quivering as he leaned on a stick with a tennis ball, but some vim and gusto in him (including when he feinted a violent move towards a cowering Oliver, lying on the floor in front of him). Adam moved slowly, but often cackled knowingly towards the audience while leaving. Jaques, though, tended to leave on a sincere note; while he laughed joyfully when moved to do so by Touchstone, his slower pace and quiet refusal of the collective joy – not mean, but just distant – gave his final exit, at least, surprising power.

This sincerity was also a feature of Rosalind and Orlando’s relationship. Where everyone else doubled two or more roles, Swain and Carter just played the one role each, giving them a consistency of tone throughout that was thrown into relief by the broader comedy elsewhere. Carter, in particular, played Orlando with an urgency that created the narrative drive for much of the production’s first half. His frustration with his brother began when Oliver put him to work during the pre-show songs; his eruption into defensive violence when Oliver challenged him was then channelled into the fight with Charles (which had some cartoonish fun by having Charles miss Orlando entirely and run head-first into a wall), and then into Orlando’s attack on Duke Senior’s camp. It was ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ that underscored Orlando relaxing with Duke Senior, moving his hand to touch the Duke quietly as the Duke revealed who he was, and from thereon in, the anxious young man was enabled to be open to happiness.

With Orlando and Jaques bringing the more chilled out energy to the forest, and Touchstone sidelined into antics with Audrey, it was left to Rosalind and Celia to pick up the narrative baton. Swain and Ross developed a quick closeness with one another in the early scenes, their characters both a little spoiled, a little cocky, but full of joy and fun (it was easy, here, to see why Orlando stood open-mouthed and unable to speak in front of these two supremely confident young women; they were so clearly at home wherever they chose to be, whereas Orlando’s energy was entirely that of the nervous new kid in their presence). Celia’s immediate loyalty to Rosalind in the face of Frederick’s banishment of her cousin was unquestioning and unhesitating, the rules that bound the girls immediately drawing her to Rosalind’s side. The preternatural adultness of the 90s high school heroine here worked well in articulating the confidence with which Rosalind and Celia abandoned their home; their reappearance in disguise, with Celia complaining about the smallest of hardships, and Rosalind (whose Ganymede, with little moustache and bucket hat, was perfectly reminiscent of Donald Faison in the Clueless TV series) now working through the mannerisms of a man, showed them starting to develop in separate ways.

Nonetheless, the relationship between Celia and Rosalind was the strongest one in the production, filled with contact and comfort, whether lying on the floor stretching out in anticipation of Orlando’s charms, or taking a turn about the stage together, reinforcing the strength they drew from solidarity. Whereas Orlando gave Rosalind open, unfeigned attention (his general calmness a nice contrast to her hyper-energetic performance), Celia shared Rosalind’s bounce and playfulness. Between the two, Swain developed a giddy, joyful Rosalind whose performances of manliness were always a temporary performance; indeed, she held her leather jacket wide open for Celia to remind her that she was a woman, and never seemed too far from throwing off her disguise. Rosalind’s forceful engagement with the audience, from wringing the hands of someone on the gallant stools to working her way around the men in the audience during the epilogue, insisted on Rosalind as the narrator of her own story, working both the narrative itself and the reception to it (in one of the best individual moments, Rosalind’s line ‘Because that I am more than common tall’ got a great laugh on account of Swain not meeting that particular description, a laugh that she greeted by turning, stony-faced, to throw a ‘Jokes?!’ at the audience). And in Swain, the production’s concept, structure, design and thematics came together most effectively. The small-scale format is one which draws attention to the craft of storytelling, whether through the self-consciousness of visible costume changes or the virtuoso spinning around of actors as they have conversations with themselves. Rosalind’s manipulation of the various lovers of the forest was mimicked in Swain’s management of the entire theatrical experience, and the pleasure came in submitting to that experience, as made manifest in Silvius’s increasingly loud roars of delight at getting to marry Phebe and his high-fiving of seemingly everyone in the building.

The production struggled at times, particularly towards the end, with the clarity of its storytelling. The choice to have several exits through the discovery space curtain immediately followed by entrances through the same curtain disrupted the pace and the spatial logic of the production, and made the scenes feel more self-consciously presentational. The cut’s deprivileging of the Touchstone and Audrey storyline, both in the lead-up to the final marriages and during the final scene, left the build-up of their subplot somewhat unfulfilled; and the speed with which actors had to be running to the exits to do another costume change before their present scene had finished paradoxically left a play which finishes with four definitive weddings feeling strangely unresolved. The production did, at least, manage a neat arrangement of the three couples (excluding Touchstone and Audrey) sharing a kiss, each overseen by Duke Senior taken the Hymen role. But the moment of the production which drew me in most was the conclusion of the first half, in which ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ announced a moment of stillness and calm, togetherness and peace, on the stage. The frantic anxiety of the fast changes throughout the final scene (don’t be happy, worry!) risked unmaking its unions even as they were being made, and those instances where the couples were allowed to take a moment to be still were precious. But, consistently with the production’s strongest moments of integrating its process with its content, it was Swain who provided that lasting moment of stillness with an Epilogue that was warm, direct, measured, and full of joy. The connection to the audience, the management of the experience of togetherness, the promise that you can relax in someone else’s hands, was where this forest of Arden created its safe space.

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