I’ve greatly enjoyed The Queen’s Company’s all-female Shakespeare productions in the past. As You Like It, with its colorful, strikingly powerful female characters would seem a natural fit for the troupe’s cross-dressing, pop-music-adorned sensibility. But this modest production, while splashily costumed and generally well acted, proves disappointingly passionless, especially in the first half.
Annie Paul (Celia), Elisabeth Ahrens (Rosalind), and Natalie Lebert (Touchstone). Photo by Bob Pileggi.
A custom-written prologue declares the play to be one in which “love triumphs over the gun.” Love does triumph, and there is indeed a pistol; the gun disobeys the rules and never goes off, but the sounds of passing helicopters and an explosion take some of the pressure off the Chekhovian trigger.
The setting has been moved to a violent, perhaps revolutionary period in Latin America. Director Rebecca Patterson’s program notes describe Chilean inspiration, and the costuming certainly suggests the Andes; the wrestler Charles (the droll Tiffany Abercrombie) wears a Mexican-wrestling mask in the ring, and the script’s “Monsieurs” become “Señors.” But otherwise this is a largely straight-ahead presentation of Shakespeare’s famed comedy, with its deft and rather bubbly exploration of the contrast between courtly and “natural” man.
Duke Senior has been banished with his loyal nobles to the Forest of Arden by his usurping brother Frederick (a stately Julia Campanelli plays both Dukes). Their respective daughters, lifelong BFFs Celia (the excellent Annie Paul) and Rosalind (an appealing but sometimes line-rushingly spunky Elisabeth Ahrens) have continued to live together at court; but a hardening of the Duke’s attitude towards his niece induces the pair to flee together.
Meanwhile Orlando (Virginia Baeta), youngest son of a minor noble, has also been booted out of town, but not before forming a passionate attachment to Rosalind upon their meeting during his surprisingly successful wrestling match with Charles. Ms. Baeta’s Orlando has gravitas but little energy, making it difficult to conceive why the flowery, energized Rosalind would have fallen for him; perhaps this characterization was a mistaken directorial choice, for Ms. Baeta clearly has dramatic power in reserve, as demonstrated in the gripping scene in which, desperate for food for her starving old servant Adam (Heather MacDonald), Orlando endeavors to hold up the forest-dwelling Duke Senior and his men, only to find welcome instead of resistance.
Alas, this Orlando has few such moments, and the play doesn’t really comes alive until the late entrance of drama-queen shepherdess Phoebe (Ms. Abercrombie again), the disdainful beloved of the humble swain Silvius (Amy Driesler). Ms. Abercrombie’s scene-chewing colors the theater like a welcome evening breeze after a sultry day; her energy is what this production needs a lot more of. The last part of the play is also the setting for the production’s only example of The Queen’s Company’s characteristic pop-music dance production numbers, in this case a hilarious but out-of-context reproduction of the “Time of My Life” dance sequence from Dirty Dancing.
Smaller bright spots along the way come courtesy of Natalie Lebert’s amusing Touchstone, the only Fool in Shakespeare who ends up getting married – but not in this version. Here the rude country girl Audrey, Touchstone’s ironic love interest, has been excised, except for an inexplicable scene in which the clown playacts one of his conversations with her to, of all people, the Duke. Much better to have eliminated all mention of her if her presence had to be sacrificed. In any case it reduces the amusement Touchstone can provide.
Ms. Lebert also plays Jaques, Duke Senior’s melancholy companion, investing him with appropriate seriousness but partaking of the production’s overall listlessness, delivering the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech in a curiously calm way; his announcement that he feels out of place and is departing from the final group scene of wedded bliss feels almost like an afterthought.
I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll say it again: The Queen’s Company’s all-female casting isn’t even an issue. Remember that in Shakespeare’s day all the roles were played by men. Every actor’s performance is just that, a performance. That is to say, these productions don’t feel at all gimmicky, and the casting has nothing at all do with the flaws I found here. The troupe has much to recommend it despite this uncharacteristically flat production. As You Like It runs through May 20 at Walkerspace in Tribeca, NYC.