Review: “As You Like It” at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival

John P. McCarthy 

  • OnStage New York Columnist

Garrison, NY – Giddy describes the dizzying swirl of emotions most of us experience when in the throes of love. Not knowing whether the feeling is mutual only adds to the excitement, heightening the sense of disorientation as we seesaw between dread and ecstasy.

Shakespeare both revels in and mocks this symptom of romantic love in his pastoral comedy “As You Like It,” so it’s appropriate that giddiness is the main sensation engendered by Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s new production of the play. Perhaps it achieves this at the expense of articulating the more cerebral and less effervescent phenomena associated with love that the Bard addresses. But it never loses sight of how painful and difficult being in love can be. 

Moreover, this humane and warmly compassionate production directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch does an admirable job of highlighting the other types of love that Shakespeare has the perspicacity and breadth of imagination to consider in “As You Like It.” 

No character is so besotted that they don’t question their amorous feelings; and yet this only adds to their giddiness. Everyone is in a state of disbelief, unsure whether to dive headlong into love or to proceed with caution. Orlando (LeRoy McClain), who has been disinherited and driven away from home by his older brother Oliver, has the fewest doubts. Just before going into the forest he sets eyes on Rosalind and instantly falls for her. “Neither rhyme nor reason can express how much” in love Orlando is. “I am he that is so love-shaked,” he later admits. 

 photos by T. Charles Erickson

photos by T. Charles Erickson

Rosalind also falls in love at first sight. But, unable to ignore her queasiness, she won’t allow her feelings to take over. She gives her uncertainty a full hearing, making the path to her inevitable union with Orlando more complicated. Banished by her uncle Duke Frederick, she retreats to the same forest—along with her cousin and best friend Celia, and Frederick’s jester Touchstone—disguised as a country boy. As Rosalind, the aptly surnamed Jessica Love is winsomely attractive and buoyantly clever, adept at communicating the debate between Rosalind’s head and heart, her struggle to choose a path to happiness. 

Three other couples become entangled and provide vehicles for Shakespeare’s musings on romantic love. And he also paints vivid portraits of other kinds of love. The devotion cousins Rosalind and Celia have for one another is held up as a model of friendship. And the bonds of sibling love—between Oliver and Orlando, and between Duke Frederick and Duke Senior—are broken and then mended, which introduces another major theme of the play, forgiveness. 

Director Upchurch is intent upon emphasizing a third type of non-romantic or platonic love in “As You Like It.” At the risk of putting too moral a point on it, call it love for one’s fellow man or love for thy neighbor. In this context, that means care for displaced persons—castaways from the court—and anyone needing food, shelter and/or the sustenance of human interaction while in the wilderness. Orlando has traveled into exile with his father’s loyal servant Adam (Stephen Paul Johnson). Though old and infirm, Adam insists on accompanying him because he can’t abide Oliver’s mistreatment of Orlando. (The fealty of a servant for his master, and vice versa, is yet another kind of love.) But the arduous journey and lack of food in the harsh environment brings Adam close to death. Desperate to secure food for he who “after me hath many a weary step limped in pure love,” Orlando accosts Duke Senior and his entourage as they are about to have a meal. 

The generous Duke’s willingness to share what they have and feed Adam is the occasion for Upchurch to stage what can be described as a Eucharistic moment in which baskets of bread are passed around and shared with audience members in the first few rows. Later in the play, the love and compassion this communal experience of breaking bread signifies is linked to romantic love in a line Rosalind delivers about Orlando, “And his kissing is as full of sanctity as the touch of holy bread.” 

Don’t worry. There’s little chance this or any production of “As You Like It” will become preachy or get bogged down in biblical allusions or religious import. The bawdy, lusty side of romance gets a full airing, as does the ridiculous behavior love can trigger. Mark Bedard and Nance Williamson steal the show as the supercilious fool Touchstone and the dimwitted object of his affection, a goatherd named Audrey. Meanwhile, the unlikely way love blossoms between the two other couples destined for the altar—Celia and Oliver, and the shepherd Silvius and the shepherdess Phoebe—defies all logical explanation. It also indicates Shakespeare was not overly concerned about plot. 

The production falters somewhat when it comes to Jacques, the dyspeptic courtier who has fled so-called civilization to live in the woods and whose skepticism about love should provide a counterbalance to the giddiness that develops. Casting a woman in the role doesn’t add a great deal, despite Rosalind’s cross-dressing and any other gender indeterminacy in the play. Maria-Christina Oliveras delivers a gruff, cantankerous, raspy-voiced Jacques whose commentary is too easily dismissed as the complaints of a world-weary grouch. That said, Oliveras rises to the occasion and delivers the “All the World’s a stage” speech with a clarity and incisiveness that demands attention. 

Everything about the play—its skepticism as well as its pleasurable, heartwarming affects—would be enhanced if the befuddlement that afflicts the lovers didn’t bleed into the production design, especially the costumes and music, which are a bit of a hodge-podge. Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s wardrobe includes some lovely pieces—the dresses worn by the women of Duke Frederick’s court, for instance—but it’s hard to see much continuity in her overall plan. The majority of outfits are betwixt and between the sophisticated elegance of the urbane court, on the one hand, and the earthy and supposedly more natural and liberating mode of the bucolic countryside on the other. More consistent whimsy and flare are called for on both fronts. 

Likewise, the music composed by Heather Christian for one of Shakespeare’s most music-filled works is a cross between soulful jazz and country bluegrass. The production would be better served by a more precise, less fusion idiom. And the hip-hop version of the song “What Shall He Have That Killed the Deer” feels forced and doesn’t scan at all. Not helping matters, the ensemble doesn’t always appear comfortable when they sing and dance. This unintended awkwardness is less a reflection on their talents or abilities as it is on the general fuzziness of the overarching design concept, including the time period. The hicks-in-the-sticks accents adopted by some of those portraying country folk rather obvious, especially when they aren’t matched by hoity-toity tones amongst the aristocratic set. 

Another example of randomness concerns the curate Sir Oliver Martext, who is to officiate over the marriage of Touchstone and Audrey. Played by Stacey Yen, he’s a pot-bellied Elvis impersonator who drives a golf cart that serves as his mobile wedding chapel. It’s a hilarious, crowd-pleasing bit that spawns great merriment and fits with the general thrust of the scene. But it’s such a specific modern allusion that it threatens to take you out of the play. Who knew this “As You Like It” was set in the Nevada desert, somewhere outside of Vegas? 

A version of this production of is slated to open at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC in January. Maybe some of these design issues will be addressed when it’s reconfigured for an indoor stage and if the budget grows. Generous and sympathetic, it has the potential to be an important imagining of Shakespeare’s celebration of “rustic revelry” and a decent attempt at making sense of this multifaceted thing called love. 

Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of “As You Like It” runs through August 27, 2016 at Boscobel House and Gardens, 1601 Route 9D, Garrison, NY.