Shakespeare with an edge

February 20, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

If you like your "As You Like It" dark and dangerous, then the production at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre is the one for you.

At least that's true of the first half, which ends with Oliver -- evil brother of the play's hero, Orlando -- hanging by his heels and covered with the fresh, bloody scars of torture.

In his American debut, British director Laurence Boswell makes it easy to understand the appeal of the forest compared to the so-called civilized life in the court.

This is as hard-edged an interpretation of Shakespeare's pastoral comedy as you're ever likely to see. Even the walls of designer Angela Davies' set are cold, gleaming chrome and the modern-dress costumes she has designed for the courtiers have a decided Germanic flavor.

Shakespeare created the character of Jaques to inject some cynicism into the idyllic proceedings (and gave him the play's most famous speech -- the one beginning, "All the world's a stage"). But this production establishes its dark contrasts long before the entrance of Floyd King's weary Jaques, who, as a result, seems more like a cranky but adorable old uncle than the voice of discontent.

The plot focuses on banished Rosalind, a take-charge gal who has fallen in love with Orlando, himself an escapee from the cruel life at court. As a measure of safety in the woods, Rosalind disguises herself as a man named Ganymede. This leads to amusing consequences when the unsuspecting Orlando encounters Ganymede, who vows to "cure" him of his love for Rosalind.

In the production's strongest performance, C.J. Wilson portrays Orlando with a noble spirit and a lot of heart. He's such a tousled-haired boyish dreamboat, it's no wonder Rosalind falls for him. Cross-dressing Rosalind is played by Kelly McGillis, who played the related role of Viola in "Twelfth Night" here some years back. McGillis has the bearing to carry off the gender switch, but her voice is never dulcet enough for fair Rosalind or gruff enough for manly Ganymede, and you're always aware of her role-playing -- even when, as Rosalind, she's supposedly just being herself.

But this romantic comedy is about more than romance -- as Boswell doesn't let us forget. Orlando has found sanctuary with the exiled Duke Senior, a wronged man of goodness who lives in the Forest of Arden with his followers -- Shakespeare's version of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. The play clearly delineates between life in the forest and life in the court. Goodness and love flourish in the forest; injustice and hatred infect the court.

Boswell's interpretation, however, exaggerates this dichotomy to such an extent that the 11th-hour conversion of the bad guys -- Orlando's brother, Oliver, and Duke Senior's brother, Frederick -- strains all credibility. Up until then, Andrew Long's Oliver and Brett Porter's Frederick have come across as such power-hungry sadists that when Rosalind's gentle cousin, Celia (Kate Forbes) marries Oliver, you want to warn her: Don't trust this guy, he could turn into a wife-beater.

But to return to the subject of a kinder gentler romance, Shakespeare populates the play with three other enamored couples, several of whose rustic members serve as foils for their supposed betters. Wallace Acton is a "Hee Haw"-style hoot as a besotted shepherd spurned by the prickly bumpkin (Opal Alladin) he loves, and Julie-Ann Elliott's buxom Audrey is the hick version of Lucy Ricardo, which makes her a fitting mate for Robert Sicular's Touchstone, the play's stock Shakespearean fool.

One of the most surprising by-products of Boswell's dark approach is its politically incorrect view of homosexuality. It's not uncommon for productions of cross-dressing classic comedies to have some fun by humorously heightening the implicit suggestions of homosexuality. In this version, however, homosexuality is relegated to the wicked world of the court, where the shadow of two kissing ladies-in-waiting haunts the scene in which Rosalind is banished. But then, of course, this is hardly a production with fun at its core.

'As You Like It'

Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., N.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, most Wednesdays and most Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and March 5; 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and most Sundays, and noon most Wednesdays; through April 6

Tickets: $13.50-$49.50

Call: (202) 393-2700

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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