Every Shakespeare lover has a different story. For some, the passion was kindled by an audio recording of Sir John Gielgud, with his deliciously plummy yet precise delivery. Perhaps they swooned over celluloid Olivier or Branagh. Others may have fallen for a great live performance. But I would guess the majority of us got hooked the old-fashioned way: reading Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets in a book, enchanted by his ancient, eldritch verse and storytelling. Watching Ellen Burstyn in Classic Stage Company’s sweet and open-armed As You Like, seated on a trunk and reading from a weighty tome on her lap, gave me flashbacks of my youth. I’d spend hours poring over my chunky Globe Illustrated Shakespeare with its 19th-century woodcut illustrations and dense, scholarly notes. At its best, director-designer John Doyle’s production conjures moments of giddy awe that approximate the sense of being a child at play in a forest of wondrous words.
Doyle’s intermission-free, 105-minute production contains the basic elements for a satisfying As You Like It: a sensible, verbally agile Rosalind (Hannah Cabell), a dashing Orlando (Kyle Scatliffe), a sassy, self-adoring Touchstone (André De Shields) and nimble musicians to make merry with the play’s several songs. Besides the work’s traditional lyrics, Doyle commissioned Broadway eminence Stephen Schwartz (Wicked) to set other text, such as when Rosalind and others read Orlando’s tortured love poetry carved into trees. As anyone who has seen Doyle’s beloved revivals of Sweeney Todd (2005) and Company (2007) will expect, his performers play instruments as well as act. Hence the elegant, twinkle-eyed Bob Stillman, double-cast as villainous Duke Frederick and the goodly, usurped Duke Senior, tickles the ivories in a most agreeable manner. When not playing a ripe and lusty Phoebe – a country lass who falls hard for cross-dressed Rosalind – Leenya Rideout plies her violin to excellent effect. Schwartz’s bluesy-jazzy compositions have a touch of Richard Rodgers and Django Reinhardt about them.
In a nod to Rosalind disguising herself as a boy to hide out from Duke Frederick, Burstyn dons male drag as Jacques, the melancholy lord who attends Duke. It’s Jacques who gets the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech. (Burstyn delivers it with an elegiac wistfulness). The veteran film actress doesn’t strain too much with the language, mostly gilding it with a wry world-weariness. Indeed, Doyle seems to have directed the company in general to keep the histrionics and verse-speaking low-key and unforced. Such a genial, organic approach has its plusses and minuses: You gain intimacy and emotional delicacy, and lose some of the drive and anarchic wit. Still, Cabell makes for one of the brightest and pluckiest Rosalinds I’ve seen in years. She’s countered amusingly by Quincy Tyler Bernstine’s Celia. Rosalind’s sidekick is often blandly virtuous, but Bernstine finds salty notes of sarcasm, irony and irritation.
In addition to directing chores, Doyle is credited with production design. (Costumes and lights are by Ann Hould-Ward and Mike Baldassari, respectively, and David Arsenault was associate set designer). As with many a Doyle staging, the overall visual (and sonic) aesthetic is cool, slightly abstract, contemplative and, truthfully, a bit sedate. Home decorators may silently covet the 40 or so acorn-shaped lighting units hung throughout the playing space, which form a forest of cute, multicolored orbs. These fixtures (bought from or inspired by the Finnish designer Maija Puoskari), give CSC’s Forest of Arden a cheeky, homey glow perfectly suiting the runaway ardor of its mixed-up, mismatched lovers.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.