Production believes in going through changes

Theater Review

April 25, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Something is not quite right in the Forest of Arden when the trees, sheep and goats are more entertaining than the people.

But that's frequently the case in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of As You Like It at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Of course, I should explain that in director Gregory Thompson's inventively economical staging, the trees, sheep and goats are portrayed by people.

On designer Colin Peters' extremely spare set, actors with their arms outstretched become the trees that grasp the sheets of poetry lovesick Orlando sticks on their branches. Then dropping to all fours, the actors become the baa-ing, cud-chewing sheep tended by a humble shepherd or a nubile goatherd.

Cute as such anthropomorphizing may sound, this simple device is far more striking than it is cloying, and there's a valid thematic reason for it. As in many Shakespeare plays - and, for that matter, much of literary tradition - the forest in As You Like It is a place of transformation. When the principal characters retreat to Arden, they are changed, usually for the better.

Most of these folks are in the forest because they have been banished by one evil nobleman or another, or because they are followers of the exiles. And, in the forest, due largely to the stratagems of Rosalind - the play's proto-feminist heroine, who arrives in Arden disguised as a man - the characters learn the true meaning of love and reconciliation.

Although the production suffers from a number of lackluster performances, Nina Sosanya's depiction of Rosalind isn't one of them. Sosanya's energetic, intelligent portrayal does lively justice to one of Shakespeare's greatest female creations. Sosanya's Rosalind is equally at home in court or in the woods - in dresses or trousers (the costumes are 19th century) - because she is at home in her own being. No wonder this woman, who knows her heart so well, is adept at guiding others toward their true romantic destinies.

The portrayals of those around Rosalind, however, tend to be more serviceable than inspired. Martin Hutson's Orlando, who falls in love at first sight with Rosalind, is earnest, but little else, and Naomi Frederick's Celia, Rosalind's devoted cousin, is merely a sweet foil for Rosalind's robust spirit. Among the others who have sought sanctuary in the forest, even Edmund Moriarty's melancholy Jaques, who delivers the famous "All-the-world's-a-stage" speech, is neither distinguished nor compelling.

There are two other key cast members, however, whose performances shine. John Killoran brings verve and nimbleness to the role of Touchstone the clown, who accompanies Rosalind and Celia to Arden. Thanks to Killoran's terpsichorean body language, the evening's comic highlight is Touchstone's 11th-hour speech about the seven retorts to an argument.

The other stand-out performance is delivered by Michael Hadley in the dual roles of the banished Duke Senior and his evil, usurping younger brother, Duke Frederick. Casting the same actor in these two roles is not uncommon (Irene Lewis did it in her 1998 production at Center Stage). But the deft way in which director Thompson and Hadley convey the metamorphosis from one brother to the other - simply by removing a coat on stage, in full view of the audience - not only demonstrates the actor's skillful mutability, it also reinforces two of the play's central themes: transformation and duality. In other words, just as this one actor embodies two disparate brothers, so do we all have opposing natures and so are we all capable of change.

Would that the entire production were this slick. Instead, it is often merely adequate. This is particularly disappointing since Thompson's imported As You Like It is the inaugural effort in the Royal Shakespeare Company's five-year residency at the Kennedy Center. Granted, there are sparks of inspiration among the performances. But ultimately it's the simplistic but clever staging that strikes the most effective note. And you can't help but feel the overall balance is out of whack when, thanks to those grazing sheep and gnawing goats, some of the most memorable elements come from actors literally chewing the scenery.

As You Like It

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; matinees at 1:30 Thursdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through May 18

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

Admission: $25-$70

Call: 800-444-1324

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