As You Like It is a comedy, but you wouldn’t know that from the dearth of laughter surrounding John Doyle’s lifeless production at Classic Stage Company. Performed without intermission, the play plods along with all the zest of a dusty tome. Incidentally, a heavy, battered copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works is what Ellen Burstyn cracks open at the start of Doyle’s staging, so maybe this was his intention all along. Almost every actor spews forth the text in a rushed, muttering jumble; everything is casual, nothing is specific. Very rarely is one word made to seem more important than another. This decision to have the play performed in laid-back, contemporary-sounding cadences deflates the poetry and, after about the first thirty minutes, numbs the ear. The cast is filled with incomparable talents: from Burstyn to Quincy Tyler Bernstine (one of the finest stage actors currently working) to a legend like André De Shields. On paper, it should be electric. In person, the batteries are dead.
Doyle’s fondness for a let’s-put-on-a-play aesthetic is present here and extended into his set design, which places the actors in a nondescript, wood-planked barn. I immediately thought of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, but the youthful exuberance of the Babes in Arms gang is not present in this troupe of players. Burstyn spends a good portion of the play sitting on a trunk reading from the text and observing her fellow actors, but her Jacques-cum-Stage-Manager is not involved with any machinations of the plot outside those centered on her own character. No one else concerns themselves with her book outside of the first few lines, read over her shoulder by Kyle Scatliffe as Orlando, and at the end when they do this again. How the book and its holder function is not explored and it adds nothing to the telling of the story.
Inside this framework, and dressed in Ann Hould-Ward’s homespun mid-century costumes, most actors struggle to adopt discernible, layered identities. De Shields is directed to play everything from his crotch, so you know he’s horny. Bernstine wears sunglasses, so she’s cool and aloof. The effect is more broad strokes than detailed drawing. With everything so vague and cursory, the characters’ relationships are not given the time or attention to allow them to blossom. When almost every character is suddenly paired off at the end, it is surprising because no chemistry has been developed and we are not invested in their happiness. That last thing is crucial in Shakespearean comedies: if we don’t care whether or not the heroine/hero end up together, why are we watching this play?
It’s not total drudgery, though. Cass Morgan, in her dual roles as Old Anna and Audrey manages to create two believable, interesting characters and is the most alive and present in her parts. Hannah Cabell (Rosalind) has a natural, easy way with the text and, as she has the lion’s share of the play, is strong and capable in carrying us through it.
In general, this production of As You Like It suffers from a lack of directorial clarity and specificity. It’s pleasing to look at it, but the various plot points don’t land and the events don’t connect with one another. Doyle removes scene breaks along with the intermission, so it’s difficult to establish a change in location or a passage of time. It’s inoffensive, but bland. There is no passion, no momentum, and no tension. Shakespeare’s play isn’t allowed to breathe.