January 22nd, 2010

La Loge

As You Like It at BAM

I love the Harvey Theatre at BAM.  It is at once state-of-the-art and derelict, with peeling paint, exposed plaster, chipped gilding, comfortable and sensible stadium seating, and really good lights.  We saw the Arabic Richard III there, and the Macbeth with Patrick Stewart and something else that escapes me.  It seems to me to be a home for unusual productions, mildly audacious rather than truly experimental or avant-garde (although I haven't really seen enough there to know for sure).  The As You Like It we saw last night was in some ways a case in point.

As You Like It is not a complicated play.  You have four pairs of lovers, scattered across the social spectrum, all of whom fall in love pretty much as soon as their eyes meet.  You have a usurped duke, who doesn't seem to be too upset by his fall in fortune or what's happening to his dukedom and his people under the rule of his extremely unstable brother.  You have a  forest, which has the magical property of turning evil brothers into repentant model citizens or anchorites.  And you've got a girl pretending to be a boy who is pretending to be a girl for reasons that do not bear examination.  Because, despite the fact that Rosalind and Orlando are a genuinely charming pair of lovers and Oliver and Duke Frederick, this play is not about the nature of true love or family rivalries.  It's about the court vs. the forest; artifice vs. nature; head vs. heart--and it's not tremendously serious in what it has to say about it, either.

So you can imagine my bewilderment when the first act of the Bridge Project's production, directed by Sam Mendes (who, in case you're as ignorant as I am, directed American Beauty, among others) unfolded in shades of dramatically-lit grey, brown, and black, with the good guys in layers of rags and fingerless gloves and the bad guys in tuxedos with their hair slicked back and Duke Frederick spitting all over Rosalind in his rage.  The Forest of Arden was just as grim, all bare and grey, with snow on the ground and the Old Duke and his (not particularly) merry men huddled around a smoking brazier with guitars.  This was Arden seen through Jacques's eyes, and a very strong Jacques it was, played by Stephen Dillane, who I think I saw in The Coast of Utopia.  More wry and cynical than melancholy, and never more wry than when the Old Duke had said something particularly fatuous about how wonderful the simple life was.

Oddly enough, I rather liked the first act, but could feel the gears grind a little over the transition to the second act, which has much more sweetness and light in the language and moves (for the most part) towards redemption and reconciliation.  I was a little puzzled by the rice paddies that seem to be planted in the Forest of Arden, but I loved the trees, and I loved the 1930oid costuming--except for Rosalind's polo shirt and khakis and little porkpie hat, which made her look like a baby Ellen DeGeneres.  It might have been interesting if she'd had the least bit of chemistry with Celia, but she didn't.  I very much liked Christian Camargo's Orlando very well indeed, Juliet Rylance as Rosalind less--though I saw her as Cressida this summer in London and thought she was great.  Odd that I didn't think she had bunches of chemisty with Camargo, since they're married in real life.  Maybe they're just too used to each other or he'd thrown his socks on the floor again or who knows what?  Live actors are the beating heart of live theatre, for good and for ill.