Making a welcome American directing debut, Royal Shakespeare Company regular Mark Rylance offers an “As You Like It” that would no doubt please the play’s dark-humored soul, Jacques. A more melancholy spin on one of Shakespeare’s breeziest comedies would be difficult to imagine, and that Rylance’s poignant approach works as well as it does makes his first stateside effort all the more impressive.
With its modern dress and contemporary setting, this “As You Like It” would seem a natural for Shakespeare in Central Park, and would certainly rank among the better recent endeavors at the Delacorte. As a director, Rylance, who played Henry V in last season’s well-received Off Broadway production, shows a smart bent for the cumulative effect of detail. Even his oddest touches don’t seem presented for eccentricity’s sake alone, but add to his shadowy, moody interpretation.
Why else would he have Rosalind’s stalwart cousin Celia (Erin J. O’Brien) confined to a wheelchair or walking tortuously on twisted legs? Her small, subtle improvement in mobility over the course of the play certainly mirrors her growing independence, but it also adds a poignance that Rylance and crew deliver in the most unexpected places.
Note, too, Michael Rudko’s nervous, halting interpretation of the “all the world’s a stage” speech, or the dreamy mood that surrounds the exhausted collapse of Orlando’s faithful old servant. High-contrast lighting, echoic sound and Claire van Kampen’s pretty piano compositions also contribute worthily to the effect.
The production’s successes make its low points that much more disappointing. In particular, the wooing scene between Orlando (Trellis Stepter) and Ganymede/Rosalind (Miriam Healy-Louie) loses its energy midway through, and the stark, glaring lighting doesn’t help.
Elsewhere, though, Rylance occasionally goes against the production’s pervasive tone to good effect. His own performance of the buffoonish Touchstone uses a deadpan delivery beneath a plaid explosion of 1970s garb, and his courting of Audrey, played by very large actor David Dossey in drag, marks the production’s only outright drift into slapstick.
Not only does the contrast in tone work, but it becomes the linchpin of the entire production. Rylance plays up the dualities of the comedy — court life vs. country, youth vs. age, Touchstone’s clownish wit vs. Jacques’ cynical humor — even to the point of having most of the actors play dual roles. Nothing in this production seems arbitrary.
The cast is generally good, particularly Healy-Louie’s delicate Rosalind and O’Brien’s Celia. Stepter’s Orlando lacks the charisma to carry his numerous scenes, although the actor does come through at crucial moments.
The production opens the 15th season of Theater for New Audience. Congratulations are in order.