Michael Sexton returns to Red Bank’s Two River Theater after directing a bold Henry V last season to helm a vibrant and insightful As You Like It. This is a play often treated with a delicate touch, as the lightest of Shakespearean romantic comedies, a charming and delightful play. But while this production is charming and delightful, Sexton digs out the grit, bringing a refreshingly realist eye to As You Like It.
To bring snow into the Forest of Arden is to make the pastoral terrain rough and uninviting and to make the task of inhabiting this forest a challenging and uncertain one. Arden is so often depicted as an idyllic green pasture with the sun shining, the birds chirping, abounding in pastoral cliché. The opening speech of Duke Senior – Philip Goodwin, nimbly pulling double duty as Dukes Frederick and Senior – is about how custom has made exile life in the forest more sweet than life at court; it is usually then delivered as a rousing back-slapping review of how enjoyable forest life has proved for the Duke and his woodland court. But Sexton’s approach is different: the snow falls as the men gradually cover themselves in heavy layers of clothing to protect themselves from the harsh winter cold.
Senior seems less like he is voicing the shared opinion of his cohorts than attempting to convince a group of skeptical and worried followers that their faith in his leadership is well placed (this is the same technique Sexton brought to Henry V’s Saint Crispin speech). A snowy and cold Forest of Arden destabilizes any romantic notion of a carefree pastoral life. While spring ultimately blooms in this As You Like It, as it must, Sexton’s reminds us that even romantic comedy such as this is constructed on a complex social scaffold. The director is savvy enough, for example, to recognize that “colorblind casting” does not magically make the audience blind to the cast’s race, and he uses this reality to reinforce the notion that Shakespeare’s “light comedies” often traffic in vast social and class inequality. Whenever the term “master” is deployed in this As You Like It, the servant is black and the master white. The effect is off-putting and disquieting: happy endings do not necessarily mean happy societies.
Before it seems too much like I am suggesting that Sexton has turned As You Like It into Glengarry Glen Ross, it’s worth saying that this production is full of the jaunty comedy and wit that is the play’s trademark. Miriam A. Hyman’s Rosalind is a joy to watch. She’s spent much of her life as the smartest girl in the room, but must suddenly negotiate the onset of a butterflies-in-the-stomach infatuation with Orlando and her abrupt banishment by a capricious uncle. Rosalind needs all her wits about her to maneuver her way to a happy outcome, and Hyman shows us clearly the character’s struggles to navigate he unexpected trials.
Jacob Fishel also shines as Orlando, the youth as in love with the idea of romance as the sardonic Jacques (Geoffrey Owens) is with melancholy. Orlando’s innate qualities outshine his lowly breeding, and so even as the character fumbles the custom of courtship and later writes sickeningly formulaic love poetry, Fishel consistently finds and presents the inward traits that make Orlando so appeallingly to Rosalind.
Sexton’s skill at locating and cultivating Shakespeare’s complexity notwithstanding, this As Your Like It ends with a romantic flourish. The final scene in the forest is beautiful to look at (thanks to Brett J. Banakis’ design), and the soundscape of Brandon Wolcott is suitably celebratory. Sexton’s As You Like It does not deny us the romantic pleasures of Shakespeare’s comedy; its final act delivers on those pleasures as confidently as its opening scenes interrogate the complexity of the play that so often gets overlooked.