The familiarity of Shakespeare texts makes them rife with interpretive potential. In many productions, this means that the directorial choices (for example, which twentieth century war to modernize MACBETH with) or the strength of the actors become the focal points of the play. AS YOU LIKE IT, now playing at Two River Theater, is no exception – but the technical interpretations in this production are what set it apart.
This is not to say that the acting and directing don’t factor in – they do, but the results are mixed. The acting is more than adequate, with Miriam A. Hyman as Rosalind (and Ganymede, of course) leading the way. Hyman is so compelling that when she’s missing, her absence is palpable, even in a production without many weak acting spots. Rosalind, the cross-dressing cupid stand-in, is a demanding role (at the very least), but Hyman attacks it with a hunger that betrays both confidence and occasional (redemptive) self-effacement. Some of the nontraditional choices (such as a brief rendition of “Day-O” meant to attract Orlando’s attention) didn’t go over so well with certain audience members, but then, it’s near impossible to please all types with creatively interpreted Shakespeare.
Speaking of which, the direction: it’s hard to describe the blocking choices of this AS YOU LIKE IT, but the word “subtlety” doesn’t come to mind. There’s a lot of the demonstrative pacing and sudden halting that normally fills student productions, and yet, in a production so purposefully constructed, it seems deliberate as well. It’s one thing to motion in a way that helps to convey tricky language; it’s another to hand-feed phrases. Working out which side of the fine line between obviousness and self-consciousness the directing falls in this performance is as enticing as it is distracting.
And then there are the real standouts here: the designers. Sound design by Brandon Wolcott is used heavily, especially early in the play. It creates a sense of persistent menace which eventually gives over completely to ease and catharsis. The costume design succeeds in hiding actors in double roles (one audience member, upon seeing Leighton Bryan as Le Beau for the first time, cried out: “Is that a girl?” He didn’t get the swiftest of responses). Rosalind’s costume as Ganymede worked the best, convincing through simplicity.
Last, but not least, is the scenic design. Brett J. Banakis’s set is at first a picture of propriety: a cold, clean interior with a foreshadowing painting of a birch tree forest on the wall. But within a few scenes, the whole stage is consumed by the winter of the forest, the white trees and the snow that falls between them the only company for a gaggle of passionate runaways. But time passes, and the set changes; the birch trees stick around, but there’s green and sun between them now and the hope of a new spring. One way to gauge success of the Banakis’s design might be to have an audience member watch an actor-less time lapse video of Two River Theater’s AS YOU LIKE IT, watch the scenery shift without other context clues. My guess is the audience’s emotional response would be exactly the same. Shakespeare is not known to choose his seasons arbitrarily, and the designers behind this faulty but fixating production did well to take notice.
AS YOU LIKE IT
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Sexton
February 4 – 8, 2014
Two River Theater Company
21 Bridge Avenue
Red Bank, NJ 07701