The Royal Shakespeare Company’s six-week residence at the Park Avenue Armory kicked off on July 6 with the pastoral comedy As You Like It, the first of five Shakespeare plays to be performed in repertory. And while Michael Boyd’s production is certainly a delight, it’s nothing compared with the sheer thrill of experiencing the newly constructed theater built expressively for the company inside the massive Armory.
The unique 230-ton, 975-seat space essentially reconstructs the original Globe Theatre. Even those sitting in the mezzanine or balcony sections will sense the incredible intimacy, which makes audience members feel as if they are hovering directly over the large cast performing on a thrust stage.
As You Like It begins with Rosalind (Katy Stephens) and Orlando (Jonjo O’Neill), who just fell in love on first sight, being kicked out of Duke Frederick’s court on threat of death. Joined by her cousin Celia (Mariah Gale) and the clown Touchstone (Richard Katz), Rosalind dresses up like a man for protection and heads out to the Forest of Arden, where her recently deposed father and his followers are in hiding.
The production takes place on a bare white stage with numerous trap doors that allow for super-quick entrances and exits. Boyd, who is artistic director of the RSC, takes an explicitly dark and often violent approach to the first half of the play.
During a wrestling match early on in the play, Orlando smashes his competitor’s head against a white wall and blood gets smattered against it. All the members of the court are dressed in black. Even when the setting shifts to Arden, all the men are seen carrying rifles for protection.
But a major shift in tone occurs after intermission. The chilly weather suddenly clears up, more forestry appears, and the romantic dating and mating rituals finally commence. In a very cute touch, Orlando’s love notes to Rosalind, which he hangs on trees, are extended throughout the theater and even into the lobby. You can even take one home as a souvenir.
Stephens makes for an unusually sad and mature Rosalind. But while pretending to be the male Ganymede, she is confident and cocky. She goes so far as to sport a pencil-thin mustache and insert a dildo into her pants.
O’Neill, who speaks with an Irish accent, makes for an earnest and hunky Orlando. At one point, his passion overtakes him and he kisses Ganymede, who is pretending to be Rosalind, before it is revealed that they are one and the same.
Forbes Masson portrays the introspective Jaques as a moody and sensitive singer-songwriter, even accompanying himself on guitar. Katz also makes a strong impression as Touchstone, delivering all his lines at a high energy and volume.