So many stars aligned for this production of Shakespeare’s sylvan comedy As You Like It that it’s hard to know where to begin. How about the audience? One idiosyncrasy of the Classic Stage Company’s jewel-box theater in the East Village is that you can often see your fellow theatergoers, sometimes a mixed blessing. Not here. Rarely have I seen such widespread joy cross so many faces like the wave at a football game as I observed during John Doyle’s fleet, exuberant, giddy-making production. And for good reason.
Co-produced with Long Island’s Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor (where it had its premiere just a few weeks ago), As You Like It is stripped down in every way except the essentials: The comedy is robust, the gravitas is deep yet not portentous and the simplicity of the production, designed by Doyle with refulgent lighting by Mike Baldassari and costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, bests many a more extravagant presentation of this familiar tale.
Weaving much of it together is the music Doyle commissioned from Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, and pretty much everything not composed by Alan Menken and even some scores with Alan Menken). Schwartz has appropriated not only Shakespeare’s oft-musicalized verses but a few you wouldn’t have thought to sing, suffusing them with a Chicago blues style that fits tree-in-forest with Doyle’s sorta-Jazz Age setting (though don’t hold him to it).
So this is the one about Rosalind (The Leftovers’ Hannah Cabell, bringing a breezy charm to the role) and her beloved cousin Celia (the irresistible Quincy Tyler Bernstine, of Power, etc.), banished to the forest of Arden, where they take on male disguises leading to mismatched wooing, mistaken identity, earthy foolishness and some of the Bard’s most enduring philosophizing.
The heavy linguistic lifting is handled with ethereal bliss by a trio of experts: Ellen Burstyn as a fedora-topped Jacques, whom William Dean Hazlitt called “the only purely contemplative character in Shakespeare…the prince of philosophical idlers.” Burstyn gets the “All the word’s a stage” speech and stops the show with it, absent any excessive flourish except, maybe, understatement. (For contrast, watch her eyes positively glister with a line like, ” I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.”)
Second in this triumvirate is the swaggering Touchstone of André De Shields, regal as ever and dandified in spats, argyles, tweeds. And finally there’s the Audrey of Cass Morgan, as cunning a mix of earthy desire and rueful will as one could hope for.
As Orlando, Kyle Scatliffe (who was a sensational Jim in the recent City Center Encores! revival of Big River) sets a proper rustic tone for the slighted brother denied his inheritance but who gets the girl and the land in the end.
A signature of a Doyle production is actors playing their own instruments, and here it’s more delightful than in others, especially when the Phoebe of Leenya Rideout is playing violin or bass. Equally appealing are the Corin of Noah Brody, the Silvius of David Samuel and the double dukes and redoubtable piano playing of Bob Stillman.
Here in this Arden the hanging acorn lights change hue according to the tone of the text, as the sun changes the shadows of trees and the opalescence of leaves in a real forest. There’s magic in the air, and then, in just 90 too-brief minutes, it’s gone.