Author: MacKillop, James
Date published: May 2, 2012
Shakes It Up
Casting innovations and fast pacing spark SU Drama's revival of the Bard's As You Like It
Shakespeare's sunniest comedy and one of his two most reliable laughgetters, As You Like It never suffers from neglect. The last local production was three years ago. The otherwise unexpectedly high anticipation to see this production arises from its being the local debut of director Ralph Vito, the Syracuse University Drama Department chair lured up from Juilliard two years ago. He makes some striking innovations, like casting two women in what are usually men's roles, and rearranging the sequence of scenes in the first act, but his conception is not revolutionary. He moves the action quickly and respects the poetry. Still, none of us has seen an As You Like It that looks like this one.
A lobby card in Syracuse Stage's Archbold Theater lobby says that Vito got the idea for the vision of this production while listening to a CD of a Johann Sebastian Bach cello suite. Such an aesthetic takes advantage of the wider space at the Archbold, now that SU Drama's seasonending show has switched theaters so Syracuse Stage could have the smaller Storch Theater for The Brothers Size.
Vito's team has come up with such splendid visual and aural delights that it takes the audience a while to get away from them to see what the director and actors have wrought. Scenic designer Alexander Koziara and costumer Maria Marrero acknowledge taking inspiration from 18thcentury painters Antoine Watteau and Jean-Honore Fragonard. Think of dreamy pastoral landscapes with surreal alabaster neoclassical towers. Lighting designer Allison Shumway enhances the visual seduction. And sound designer Kate Foretek delivers mood- and tone-appropriate treasures from Bach, Vivaldi and Telemann.
All these mean that Vito is staging As You Like It to look as if it were a comedy by Oliver Goldsmith, like She Stoops to Conquer, or Richard Brinsley Sheridan, best remembered for The Rivals and School for Scandal. This has the general effect of making all but the lowest-class characters come across as more refined, not the somewhat rougher characters who diverted the groundlings at the Globe. Then again, the 18th century was no low ebb for libidinism, and characters of lower social station are unabashedly lusty. If As You Like It has many tales of love to tell, Vito makes sure they retain the bodily with the ideal.
Action in the play is framed by politics. A hard-nosed autocrat, Duke Frederick (Will Pullen), has usurped the good-guy rightful ruler, Duke Senior (Corey Steiner), who has gone into exile. Action begins with Duke Senior and then moves on to where Duke Frederick rules, the Forest of Arden. Hardly disappointed in his exile, Frederick utters the much-quoted line, "Sweet are the uses of adversity," which scenic designer Koziara has emblazoned on a monument we see before the rise of curtain. Everyone goes through a transformation when moving from Frederick's court to the Forest Court.
The fun begins at a wrestling match, pitting young swain Orlando (Kyle Anderson) with a hired muscle man named Charles (Will Serri). In the preparation for the match Orlando is immediately attracted to a gorgeous redhead, Rosalind (Hayley Palmaer), the daughter of the exiled Duke but living in the usurper's household, plus she's best buds with that duke's daughter, the blonde Celia (Rebeccah Singer). Rosalind does not know of this, but as these things go, she's just as crazy about him and does not speak it either.
Up until this point Orlando had been under the thumb of his obnoxious older brother Oliver (Benjamin Ashe). Take away Oliver's silver-buckled shoes and silk stockings, and he's the Billy Zane character in the 1997 movie Titanic. In an ugly sibling rivalry, Oliver sends Orlando out of the main court just as the usurper Duke drives out Rosalind and Celia. Now completely bonkers for Rosalind, Orlando proclaims his love in a hundred written messages hanging down from the flies. They have both escaped to Arden but do not give away their identities because Rosalind is in disguise.
She's traveling as part of a threesome. To protect her identity, Rosalind has dressed as a boy, taking the name Ganymede, while Celia has become a different woman named Aliena (Latin for "stranger") Along with them comes the fool from Frederick's court, Touchstone (Sammy Lopez), a role written for scene-stealing. Perhaps the most successful of Vito's innovations is making Touchstone a frivolous, giggling fop, perhaps based on Mr. Puff from Sheridan's satire, The Critic. It's an opening for actor Lopez, who runs with every chance the director gives him.
About this time we realize that one of Vito's hallmarks as a director is going to be deportment and movement, especially the highly expressive way he has people walk. Charles the wrestler, for example, is often a throw-away role but Vito gets some comic moments from actor Will Serri by the way Charles warms up. Much more effective, necessarily, is that way Vito has actress Hayley Palmaer walk as Ganymede with an arm-swinging, coltish gait, like Tom Sawyer with shoes. Similarly, her companion Celia slides down the social scale as Aliena with a commensurate shedding of grace.
One of our biggest surprises upon entering the Forest of Arden is to learn that Jaques, the melancholy lord with all the great lines ("All the world's a stage," etc.), is now a lady (Olivia Gjurich). Her dark purple, hooded robe implies all we need to know about the character's mordant outlook, and it seems quite plausible that Jaques should be female. Think of Chelsea Handler without the X-rated barbs. Earlier Vito has turned the assertive French courtier Le Beau into a governess (Erin Schmidt) with pleasing results.
As this is a love story, we know that Rosalind and Orlando must eventually find each other, but Shakespeare does not make it easy. He leads us through a cross between The Dating Game and musical chairs as a series of parallel love stories sort themselves out. Not to complain, however; they make for some of the highest, naughtiest fun in the show. Corin (Robert Axelrod), a shepherd, helps to introduce Phebe (Helene Morse), a shepherdess, and another shepherd, Silvius (Joseph Fierberg), who is in love with Phebe. But Phebe is taken with "Ganymede" (uh-oh). And Touchstone starts jonesing for the lusty goatherd Audrey (Sydney Patrick), on whom the bumpkin William (Dario Caudana) is making designs. It all works out, people end of with the right partners, and even Orlando's bully brother Oliver, now mollified, shows up to make nice with Celia.
Part of the pleasure of attending SU Drama productions these days is in seeing the evidence of what a competitive program it has become. Players in the smallest roles all had clever bits. Hayley Palmaer, in the plum role of Rosalind, beguiles with her mischievousness that turns to vulnerability. As for director Ralph Vito, Juilliard's loss is our gain. t
This production runs through May 12. See Times Table for information.