In John Doyle’s pared down As You Like It, opening Classic Stage Company’s 50th season, the forest of Arden is not filled with trees but rather a grove of globe-shaped lights hanging from the theater’s rafters, a brick wall with a small overhanging second level, a couple of steamer trunks and a piano on wheels. As both director and scenic designer, Mr. Doyle has put the emphasis in William Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy on imagination, music and the actor-audience relationship. In addition to shortening the play by eliminating scenes and characters -- the performance runs 100 minutes without intermission -- Mr. Doyle shakes up the casting. The company of ten actors, some of them taking on two roles and supplying superb live music, includes Ellen Burstyn playing the melancholic Jacques with a Chaplinesque presence, wryly tossing off lines of text like "I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs" to the delight of the audience. Her understated, quiet "All the world’s a stage" speech made us lean in so as not to miss a word or image.
As You Like It embraces the themes of love and forgiveness; life has to get messy before the happily ever after comes. Rosalind, a forthright Hannah Cabell, and Celia, a saucy Quincy Tyler Bernstine, disguised as Ganymede and Aliena respectively, grapple with rustic life as they run away from the tyranny of the usurper Duke Frederick to seek the banished Duke Senior in the Forest of Arden. They take Touchstone, the court clown, with them. André De Shields, sporting a rainbow umbrella and a serious salt-and-pepper pompadour, brings elegance and vocal flair to Touchstone. Also fleeing the court and a brother intent on harming him is Orlando, accompanied by his faithful, beloved servant Old Anna (a gender switch from Old Adam). The charismatic Kyle Scatliffe is touchingly earnest as the puppy-dog-in-love Orlando and the great Broadway veteran Cass Morgan steals the show in her two small roles as a moving Old Anna and the country wench Audrey, singing and playing the ukulele with wide-eyed abandon. Genius casting continues with Bob Stillman in the opposite roles of Duke Frederick and Duke Senior. Mr. Stillman’s Duke Senior, responsible for introducing the audience to the Forest of Arden in Act II of the play, speaks persuasively of the beauty and rigors of living in nature:
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
Plus, he’s an impressive villain as Duke Frederick. And his brilliant musicianship as a singer and pianist anchors the production’s jazz and blues inflected songs composed by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin).
Rounding out the hard-working ensemble are David Samuel, a striking presence as Charles and an appropriately goofy Silvius, and Noah Brody, grounded and sincere as the shepherd philosopher Corin (a worthy foil to Touchstone) who also flip flops as the evil brother Oliver. Mr. Brody convincingly paints the pictures of Orlando saving him from a hungry lioness’s mouth and his conversion to brotherly love. And as the disdainful Phoebe, Leenya Rideout, a stalwart of several John Doyle productions, gave depth to the live music with her sweet violin playing and some good rhythmic bass.
Although I missed some scenes, dialogue and characters that were cut, there are many delightful additions, such as the way the country bumpkin William was cast from the audience and the way Orlando’s bad poetry was smartly musicalized. Kudos to Mr. Doyle for shaking any cobwebs off of As You Like It and giving us a vibrant new rendering of a classic.