Shakespearean drag proved exceptionally rewarding for Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shakespeare in Love,” so it’s entirely fitting that the bright young star should return to the stage in “doublet and hose,” as Rosalind in the Williamstown Theater Festival’s “As You Like It.” Playing a role that her Oscar-winning turn wittily commented on, Paltrow gives an ardent and appealing performance, full of larking high spirits and smiling charm. Alas, she doesn’t succeed in communicating (after only three weeks of rehearsal, granted) the wisdom and emotional maturity that are so central to this extraordinarily rich character. In that respect, her performance is of a piece with Barry Edelstein’s production, a consistently funny if superficial romp through what is perhaps the Bard’s most refined and sophisticated comedy.
“As You Like It” is famously short on plot. By the end of the first act, its onstage action is more or less at an end. The good Duke Senior has been exiled from the court by his usurping brother Frederick; likewise the good Orlando (Alessandro Nivola) is chased from town by his envious brother Oliver. Duke Senior’s daughter Rosalind, too, is unjustly banished by Duke Frederick and is followed by her loyal friend Celia (Megan Dodds), Frederick’s daughter.
They are all victims of strangely arbitrary emotion, and the progress of the play, a series of ruminative or jesting conversations between the court exiles and the rustics of the forest, traces a gentle progress toward righting these and other emotional wrongs, re-establishing the proper emotional and social equilibrium through a many-sided examination of the meanings and manners of another seemingly arbitrary feeling — love. Injured by unjust hate, Rosalind must test the truth of the love that so suddenly blossoms in her heart and that of her beloved Orlando.
Edelstein’s 20th-century Arden is a self-consciously artificial one. Narelle Sissons’ set designs suggest a chic abstraction of nature: A few specimens of flora and fauna, carefully mounted in elegant wooden display boxes, are arrayed around the stage. As act two opens, a tiny, nearly bare sprig is ceremoniously placed at the front of the stage, evoking laughter. Shakespeare, of course, was himself mocking the idealizing conventions of pastoral comedy, but Edelstein’s production adds another distancing layer: the Duke’s act two opening speech, for example (“Sweet are the uses of adversity …”), is delivered by a generally stiff Byron Jennings with boisterous sarcasm, to the amused guffaws of his compatriots. When Amiens comments on his “quiet and sweet” style, it’s nonsensical.
Indeed there is not a lot of quietness and sweetness to be found in this Arden. Most of the minimal emotional texture is supplied by a smooth jazz quartet, Keith Byron Kirk’s silken vocals and the lovely music of Mark Bennett. It’s somehow fitting that this Arden should feature only a few green leaves, for while Edelstein’s production delivers many of the play’s exchanges with ample pungency, its core is emotionally a little barren.
Many of the supporting comic characters are nicely rendered. The Touchstone of Mark Linn-Baker is fizzy and fine, and his exchanges with Michael Cumpsty’s excellent Jaques are highly diverting. (Cumpsty is also among the few actors who delivers the verse with sufficient elegance and clarity.) Dodds’ Celia nicely matches Paltrow’s Rosalind; they seem like sisters in body and spirit. John Ellison Conlee’s cherubic Silvius is goofy and endearing, but Angelina Phillips’ Phebe is too silly and coarse, and Lea DeLaria’s Audrey unnecessarily vulgar and overbearing.
The production has few emotional underpinnings. The currents of feeling that should bubble up through it remain hidden, largely because the performers are more capable of getting laughs than getting under the skins of their characters. Even as she mocks at love, for example, Rosalind is in thrall to it, and her mockery thus has a poignant edge. Paltrow never manages to suggest both simultaneously, although she is a delightfully spunky, tomboyish Ganymede, and she has a real flair for Shakespeare’s badinage.
It is through Rosalind’s agency that all of the love matches in the play are ultimately made — she has an artistic intelligence, some commentators have suggested, that acts as a metaphor for the playwright’s — but Paltrow’s performance substitutes girlish (and boyish) insouciance for the sublime spiritual grace that should give Rosalind her power. (Perhaps that’s why Edelstein substitutes the worldly figure of Larry Marshall, in white tails, crooning the Louis Armstrong standard “It’s a Wonderful World,” for Hymen, the goddess Rosalind invokes in the text to unite all the lovers: This Rosalind is too down-to-earth to be trafficking with deities.)
Of course, the depths of Rosalind are daunting to any actress (Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom ranks her alongside Hamlet and Falstaff as the Bard’s greatest creations). Her spirit and wisdom cannot be turned on like tears. In any case, if Paltrow does not successfully communicate all of Rosalind’s graces, she undeniably has her own.
As Orlando, Nivola is rough and somewhat uncouth in the early going, but seems to blossom in Paltrow’s presence, improving remarkably as the play progresses. And Paltrow’s delivery of the epilogue — when she steps outside the character and communicates directly to the audience — is breathtakingly beguiling. Indeed, if Paltrow could imbue her heroine with the sincere feeling and graciousness that the actress seems to authentically possess, she will one day be a Rosalind to be reckoned with.