The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival’s second play of the season, As You Like It, opened last week, and a lively good time it is. First of all, it’s a play that keeps moving—Shakespeare’s tendency to verbal excess doesn’t get the better of the action, even with the abundance of couples trying to make a go of it. And it’s also one of the easiest plays to follow: the situations are crystal clear, the dialogues further the action, and there’s precious little speechifying for its own sake.
Director Louisa Proske’s production is varied enough in its approach to keep things interesting even if you know the play well. The action begins outside in the courtyard where a platform is set up for the wrestling match that will take place between Orlando, our hero, the youngest son of Roland de Bois, but dispossessed by arrogant older brother Oliver (Paul Lieber), and Charles the wrestler. Orlando (Marcus Henderson) is a guileless youth who manages to best the bruiser Charles (Tim Brown in a funny performance that sounded to me like a take-off on Christian Bale in The Fighter), earning himself the enmity of casually ruthless Duke Frederick (Brenda Meaney in the first of three shape-shifting performances), who hands out banishments the way cops do parking-tickets.
Orlando departs for the forest of Arden, already fabled as a place where youths are flocking to disport idyllically with banished Duke Senior. But first there are some passionate exchanges between Orlando and Rosalind (Adina Verson), the daughter of Duke Senior, who must follow her father into banishment. It’s a real love-at-first-sight moment for Orlando and Rosalind, wherein both characters say what they mean and can’t believe they really mean what they’re saying.
Back inside, the Cab has been transformed into the forest of Arden, and things get much funnier with the arrival of Rosalind, now disguised as the male youth Ganymede, her close confidante Celia, now Aliena, and their sour attendant, the fool Touchstone (Babak Tafti). Much of the play’s fun is found in the Bard’s ability to make wooing and resistance comical—either love will win or it won’t: in either case, the lovers can’t do much about it. A strength of the Cab’s show is how amusing are the exchanges and attitudes of the two friends, imbuing the roles with a sense of the contemporary, an effect aided by whimsical costuming (no photos—you’ll have to see for yourself).
The costuming is particularly effective when we meet the banished Duke (Meaney again, in her best guise of the evening) wearing a wreath of flowers and talking about the simple pleasures of life in the forest of Arden as if he dropped acid with Jerry Garcia. His troupe of faithful (Tim Brown, armed with lute; Tara Kayton, with books of Ginsberg poems and Buddhist philosophy; Paul Lieber, with guitar and a bearded look that recalls Paul McCartney from the Let It Be period) stand about nodding in blissful counterpoint. With a troupe like this, you know the songs will be lilting and they are (had they burst into “Yellow Submarine” it would not have been out of place).
A notable exception to the “no speechifying,” of course, is the melancholy Jaques’s famous disquisition on the Ages of Man. Played by Matt Biagini as the troupe’s black-clad, posturing poet, Jaques enlists a group enactment of the different stages, making the speech into a deliberate communal moment, rather than a personal rant aimed to bum everyone out.
As the lovers impeded by disguise and subterfuge, Verson’s Rosalind is more eager than skeptical; Verson gives a heartfelt performance of a Rosalind head-over-heels, forced to feign otherwise, and not easily won because not believing herself truly deserving. Henderson’s Orlando is primarily driven by reactions, a powerful figure forced to wait on the pleasures of others, and the actor is good at effusive glee.
In smaller roles, the courtship of Touchstone and Audrey (Jillian Taylor) is vulgar and comical in merrily broad fashion, and the lusty pursuit of Ganymede by Phebe (Tara Kayton), while fleeing her lovelorn pursuer Silvius (Tim Brown), makes for a diverting comic complication in the later scenes. Kayton steps into the play from her more familiar role as highly capable Producer of the Festival to enact a no-nonsense rustic who gets thrown for a considerable loop.
My one complaint: Hamlet, we know, tells the players not to let the fools speak more than is set down for them, but he doesn’t say you should cut what is set down for them: I missed Touchstone's deflating mockery of Orlando’s attempts at love poetry, and, elsewhere, he seemed to have shed a few barbs. But all’s well, there are laughs enough in this likeable As You Like It as the entire company is quite adept at playing the fool.
Photos by Ethan Heard, by courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret
William Shakespeare's As You Like It Directed by Louisa Proske
The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival July 1-August 14
Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street, Hew Haven 203-432-1567, or summercabaret.org