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Pruning the Bard, Expanding the Forest

As You Like It: A Review

As it was for A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Besthoff Sculpture Garden is The NOLA Project's great ally in its latest Shakespearean incarnation: As You Like It. 


Spanish Moss glows with purple light at the setting of the sun, exhibit pieces comment both intentionally and accidentally on the action, and burnished images are achieved with practical lights and common props by simple virtue of their position in the surroundings. The setting and the high energy of an affable cast make it nigh impossible not to have an idyllic evening in the approaching summer night. Directed by company member Sam Dudley, the rustic tale of love in The Forest of Arden is pitch perfectly suited for the relaxing environs of one of NOMA's centerpiece spaces. It seems the smitten lovers Rosalind and Orlando have found a home for their delicate dance of courtship on which the play lavishes the majority of its action.


As You Like It

Where: Besthoff Sculpture Garden, New Orleans Museum of Art
When: May 13, 16-18, 20; 7 p.m.
Tickets: $16, available here

But seeming does not make it so. This As You Like It is only a success of surfaces. The production feels less of an overall intelligence of design and more a reliance on previous landscaping: a ghosting of the earlier Midsummer. Dudley relies too heavily on the blooming enthusiasm of his cast and the gorgeous expanse of the garden. While it is a great foundation, good looking, talented people racing through shimmering oaks and stunning statues does not a complete evening of theatre make. Neither the cutting of the script nor the staging serve to frame the proceedings. The production appears more intoxicated with moment to moment effect rather than successfully presenting an overall theme, and, more often than not, those effects are not always up to the company's usual standards. It is more entertaining than not, and it is a terrific date night. But, for lovers of Shakespeare's language and worldview, given the talent involved, it could have been so much more.


The performance style is a messy muscularity with all the benefits and drawbacks that approach implies. Mugging, preening, and jutting their chins, the ensemble affects the spirit of a Richard Lester film. They send up their characters as pretentious, proclaiming archetypes only to undo them in a series of pratfalls, embarrassments, and bathroom jokes. And when the characters actually fit into that rubric, the approach proves a fertile ground. Jason Kirkpatrick blusters and bullies as both a wrestler and country bumpkin; Keith Claverie, in an arrangement of precise superciliousness, fops and fusses as a servant about the court; and Kristin Witterschein is sexy-zany as the object of a fool's affections. There are chilling villains like Jim Wright's ice cream cold Duke Frederick, ingratiating good guys such as Chris Shaw in the role of the older, exiled duke, and shrewish ingrates of perpetual rejection played by Natalie Boyd in the role of Phoebe.


And filling out the form in full flourish are Michael Sullivan's long suffering servant Adam, bringing more than a touch of actor Roy Kinnear's Planchet from The Three Musketeers, and Alex Martinez Wallace's love nauseated Silvius who slow burns himself into a walking ember. Topping them all, Mike Harkins, in his turn as the comic Touchstone, unearths genuine laughs in a role normally designed for smiles and knowing nods. He even manages to upstage a long stemmed pipe prop that would have buried a lesser actor. Anything this ensemble lacks in depth is made up for by a distinct sense of élan and bustle.


But the style proves more problematic for the central characters. Michael Krikorian captures his Orlando's doltish earnestness, but in nurturing that quality at the expense of others, he is sometimes more simp than leading man. Kate Kuen's Celia is a warm-hearted ditz, and I believed every proclamation of love, both romantic and platonic, that came from her mouth. But there was gentleness lacking that would have lifted her role above a common romantic sidekick. And the normal insidious subtleties of Michael Aaron Santos are subsumed in an overall directorial strategy that reduces the scheming brother Oliver to a clownish, jealous fool whose course corrective comes in a monologue and the stare of a pretty girl.


Thankfully, it is the play's center, Rosalind, who manages to break free from the artistic design of its director. Kathlyn Carson fights for Shakespeare's As You Like It from beginning to end. I felt a bit distant to the coolness of her approach at the outset, but as the shouts, whines and piss moans began to mount, I warmed to her intellectual take on the role. After a time, I saw traces of Katharine Hepburn in a screwball comedy, a clever thinker undone by her desires. Watch her eyes. Always thinking, always scheming, and always one step ahead.


As You Like It is inescapably a two-step of love, but Dudley only gets the initial move down. First, it is about being stopped in your tracks, disoriented, and ultimately overwhelmed by an object of desire. Secondly, it follows the arresting reality of love at first sight with an examination of the roles people play so as to achieve the object of arrest. At its pumping heart, the play is a ravishing study in what we become in order to get what we want. Lovers Rosalind, Orlando, Celia, Oliver, Touchstone, Audrey, Phoebe, and Silvius are all thrown off their axes by the sudden gaze of another and go to great lengths to hold that gaze. That is the seed of the action.


However, many of the moments articulating that truth are staged either sloppily or flicker in a passing gaze. Actors' blocking buries crucial exposition, lines are lost in turned backs, and many of Touchstone's key scenes are obscured behind trees. Most troubling, the language - that soaring, staggering language - is pruned to its very root. Rather than careful clipping for the purpose of shaping a theme, those textual cuts feel random, like weeding made to buy time for the director's own indulgences. I could not figure out the design in the paring of the text. Had that cutting been in service of a cloud burst of a production, it might have been tolerable. However, it is sacrificed for musical interludes, dance lines, and slapstick misfires that allow the show to run for two plus hours. It also comes dangerously close to reducing Rosalind to merely part of an overall fabric in a light pastoral. In fact, were it not for Carson's performance, it might have.


No cut is more jarring or disappointing than the lopping of the most famous speech in the play down to its two core lines. As I said earlier, so much of As You Like It is about who we become to achieve what we desire. Therefore, the "All the world's a stage" speech ought to be one of the play's high points. Instead, James Bartelle's Jacques is deprived the opportunity to utter a speech that reveals both his melancholy and the greater performative nature of the world around him. The savage shearing reduces Jacques to a mean spirited manic who sputters in rage at the love of which he is not a part. I do not think I realized how crucial the monologue was for both his character and the play's meaning until I felt the hole its absence left behind.


Still, Dudley's work is not without delightful flourishes. Shauna Leone's postmodern costumes are the equal of her efforts in Midsummer, suggesting both the here and then. Young interns dressed as sheep baaa! their way throughout the evening. They lead transitions, change scenery and add to Clint Johnson's musical arrangements through either voice or instrument. And Johnson himself, along with lending his charming acting skills as the amiable Amiens, is the production's other secret weapon. His adaptations of the songs called for in the text give the play a bounce that smooths out some of the more clunky proceedings. And when he focuses, Dudley is capable of an arresting image or two. Finally, that spirit of fun and adventure permeating from the garden in the coming weeks is as much his responsibility as the previously mentioned shortcomings.

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Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde


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