AS YOU LIKE IT Works Hard for Laughs at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre

by Michael Schwartz

Theatre people insist that they love Shakespeare, but they don’t seem to trust him very much—at least, not when it comes to his comedies. As a case in point, take the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s production of AS YOU LIKE IT, one of the Bard’s breeziest plays, full of the usual cross-dressing and misunderstandings, along with a great deal of nimble verbal humor. There’s fun to be had in this production, to be sure, but the message hanging over the proceedings is something along the lines of “We know Shakespeare isn’t really funny, so we’re going to goose him a little.” As a result, several talented performers, and this reviewer’s patience, were mightily taxed.

AS YOU LIKE IT featuring (left to right) Victoria Rose Bonito as Celia, Mary Tuomanen as Rosalind, Johnny Smith as Touchstone (Photo Credit: John Bansemer)

Director Carmen Khan keeps the actors in constant motion as they twirl, jig, and skip through, over, and across David P. Gordon’s playground-inspired set. Actors manipulate large candy-colored blocks, enter on rocking-horses or in little red wagons, toss huge balls at each other, jump on swings and slide down slides—it’s remarkably busy, but busyness doesn’t equal momentum. A great deal of the staging is incredibly broad—for example, a wrestling match takes on a WWF atmosphere, complete with a kick to the crotch (one wonders if Adam Sandler was an uncredited consultant). What’s more, the enforced liveliness extends to the performances—supporting characters pull faces and effect “funny” voices, villains stop just short of twirling their mustaches, and the two lovers, Rosalind and Orlando, can’t just meet—they have to go slack-jawed to a “they’re in love” music cue. Even the bits that work get repeated to diminishing effect: a character using dolls to act out some exposition is cute once, but annoying the third time. The Forest of Arden, where the bulk of the action takes place, is populated with small toy trees, giving the actors the opportunity to look ridiculous trying to hide behind one. Once again, it’s fairly amusing the first time, but by the time Jacques, a character who should know better, does the same thing, you just want to go up on stage, take the tree away from him, and say sharply, “Stop that.”

One of the most unfortunate victims of this approach is Johnny Smith, who plays Touchstone, the court clown thrust into the country. Touchstone is one of Shakespeare’s most verbal clowns, spouting reams of puns, bawdry, and sardonic asides as he copes with and ultimately embraces country life, along with a country wench. At one point, Touchstone drives off a would-be suitor to his new love with a barrage of wit, double-talk, and parody of courtly argument—it’s a tour-de-force of language and great fun to listen to. In this production, however, Smith is obliged to whack the suitor repeatedly over the head with a balloon hammer, whip out a toy gun, and impersonate John Wayne, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Clint Eastwood (I think) as the suitor mugs fear and runs off, and it’s not much fun. Just about the entire cast gets stung in a similar fashion at one point or another, with a few exceptions: John Little, in the dual roles of Duke Senior and Corin the farmer, gets to behave normally, and he’s a breath of fresh air. Ames Adamson, despite having to join in the extraneous jigging and toy-tree tomfoolery, manages to preserve some of Jacques’ high comic-melancholic dignity.

As for Rosalind, the lively heroine around whom AS YOU LIKE IT revolves, Mary Tuomanen scores occasionally. To her credit, she’s one of the only actors to get a laugh with one of Shakespeare’s lines—“Sell when you can, you are not for all markets”—she just delivers it, well, and the joke lands. In a much less determinedly zany production, Tuomanen might have triumphed, but she’s essentially a subtle actor with fairly small-scale reactions, and consequently she pretty much disappears from memory in the first half, and only partly regains some control in the second. A bigger problem is that Victoria Rose Bonito, as Celia, Rosalind’s cousin and companion, comes off as about five times more interesting. Bonito, with slightly off-center reactions and an infectious exuberance, really seems to be enjoying herself, and you begin to wish she and Tuomanen had switched parts.

It was George Bernard Shaw, in his days as a theatre critic, who noted that Shakespeare’s chief skill was as a musician, and that the actors’ job was to bring out “the grace and dignity of the diction.” You might dismiss my review as sheer grumpiness, and you might have a point—the audience I saw the show with had a good time, and if you like your Shakespeare with heavy-duty goofiness, you probably will as well. But if you come for the Shakespearean music, you might be disappointed.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Carmen Khan
April 15-May 15, 2011
The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre
2111 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

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