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The vision of Arden and the court that the good people over to Adams House are retailing these evenings is funny, fluid, and frequently elegant. Only a malcontent, wearier of world and stage than any Jaques, could carp very long on its one major failing: sometimes one can hardly see the Forest from the treat.
As a text for production, As You Like It is something of a problem. It brims with sticky plot points and minor discrepancies. It sports a resolution more arbitrary than most. More important, much of its action hinges on Shakespeare's imitation and parody of a goodly number of Elizabethan stage conventions and philosophical commonplaces. Some of the comedy depends for its force on witty allusions, now sadly obscure.
The busy corruption of the usurper's court and the relative ease of the forest life provides a curious, imperfect echo of the poles of Shakespeare's own life: the plaguey, seething mart of London and Stratford's Arden Forest. As You Like It may be, in fact, one of the most personal of Shakespeare's plays. An attempt at a definitive production is obliged to meet these issues, to join these diverse elements, and the result may be a definitive failure.
In his effort, director Stephen Michaels successfully skirted more difficulties than he has faced head on, and the result is a definite success. The extent of the success is a measure both of the good theatrical judgment of Michaels and his company, and of the tremendous virtue of those elements of the text--the love plots, the broad verbal humor, and the many options for comic stage business--which this production plays up.
Judgment is an uncommon virtue in house theatre. The most obvious temptations are to attempt too much, or to be statisfied with too little. Credit for the mean struck in the Adams House As You Like It must go not only to Michaels and his cast, but also especially to the designer, Randall Darwall, and the costume designer, Mara Stolurow. The canopied, vine-draped setting, as flexibly lit by Donald Blair, manages to provide an unusual number of strong acting areas while evoking by turns both the sharp Arden Winter and the generous Spring.
If this essentially rural set fails to provide a wholly satisfactory backdrop for the scenes of court and town, it works wonders in transforming the less-than-congenial dining hall atmosphere into a proper stage. The use of an elaborate unit of limited flexibility benefits house theatre tremendously, even when it makes certain transformations impossible. The costumes demonstrate similar virtues: none are overlavish, all are colorful and consistent with the whole, and all show good period spirit. A surprising number of principals look handsome and easy in potentially difficult clothes.
Mr. Michaels' direction shows an especially sure touch for farcical slapstick business, nice details of external characterization, and the blocking of any largish group. He shows less command when he has a small, intimate scene at hand, but when he errs, he does so in the direction of emphasizing frenetic movement, which has a special comic advantage over the static set-ups so familiar to Harvard stages.
He is erratic in his attempts to use stage business in harness with Shakespeare's verbal wit or verbal wisdom. Often he finds success in pointing a line with a gesture, but sometimes too, his compositions are simply too full of movement for good focus. On a few occasions, he has literally obscured potentially funny or significant dialog by drawing the audience's attention to some simultaneous comic bit. In a single instance, he shows an excess of reverence to the lines, freezing an admirably raucous forest banquet to a tableau, while Jaques (Kenneth Tiger) puts the "Seven Ages of Men" through their paces. On balance, though, Mr. Michaels has directed his actors to speak with speed, clarity and nuance, and they make many more verbal points than they lose.
The Forest scenes are a good deal more effective than their contrast in the court. The images of corruption are a little thin in content, and a bit arty in directional approach, depending on tricks of slow motion and frozer action. Occasionally in the first act, I wished that Mr. Michaels did not know quite so many modern and effective comic tricks: the wrestling match, for example, loses a good deal of force from being treated as a parody of the old TV "groaners," and the faithful servant Adam (Craig Newenhuyse) is sadly reduced by being directed and played a ridiculous grotesque.
At all times, Michael's actors give him admirable support. Tigar as Jaques is a large figure, touching and funny, and even his lugubrious soliloquy comes off well in the end. Newenhuyse's Adam is far funnier than it is wrong-headed. Norma Levin is a strong and charming Rosalind, playing her maturation for good laughs and better audience identification, emphasizing the quick intelligence of Shakespeare's heroine. Danius Turek is a triumph of physical casting as Orlando, a huge, handsome, stereotype sweetheart, his readings and emotional range consistently pleasing. As portrayed by Carolyn Firth, Celia is at once acid and naive, and such a fine foil to Rosalind that their scenes together continually spark the show. ames Burt is a good Touchstone, if a strange one--his line readings are often incredibly fast, his hand gestures are always excessively generous, but his physical agility is delightful. Brian McGunigle (Corin) and Philippa Lord (Audrey) provide perfect comic cameos, while George Rosen doubling as Duke Senior and Duke Frederick, struggles bravely and often successfully with the one marked piece of ineffective casting in the production.
The Adams House As You Like It is a fortuitous meeting of a good text and a fine company. But what recommends it especially to an audience in search of good fun or good theatre is the productive care with which the approach to the text was matched with the special talents of the director, the gifts of his cast, and the limitations of House drama.
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