It’s 15 years since the Long Wharf Theater last produced a play by Shakespeare, the bard never having been one of its strong points. But all that has changed now that John Tillinger, after a lifetime spent directing other playwrights, has climbed the ultimate mountain. Not only has the encounter thoroughly invigorated Tillinger, but it has resulted in a Shakespearean production brimming with life and love that’s completely suffused with the joy of acting and making theater. It goes right to the top of Tillinger’s many achievements and gives the Long Wharf its most invigorating season-opener in years.
The praises of set designer Ming Cho Lee must also be sung, for he has done wonders with the company’s three-quarter thrust stage as well as the elongated playing area behind it. The thrust is a sleekly enameled habitat with a grass-green floor, a small mossy mound and a leafless tree. It’s backed by black sliding walls, which are open a crack to offer a glimpse of Oliver’s house and Duke Frederick’s court. The rear walls open wider and wider as winter turns to summer, and ultimately an entire Watteauesque forest of Arden is revealed. Enchanting.
As for the multiracial cast, they are impeccable down the line, readily coping with the risks Tillinger asks them to take, campiness included — which may spark criticism from some quarters. Le Beau (Tim Donoghue), for instance, is so gaily effeminate that he literally flies off the ground in ballet leaps (he also lusts after Orlando). And in the final multiple marriage scene, Pedro Porro’s Hymen rides around the stage on rollerblades, wearing little more than a Grecian miniskirt while scattering rose petals. Yet Tillinger’s campiness is so good-natured and unapologetic that it never becomes heavy-handed or offensive. As is true of almost every risk he takes in this production, it works.
The production begins well. In the first act, passions are painted in bold strokes by Orlando (Sean Haberle), his hateful brother Oliver (Steve Bassett) and a viciously paranoid Duke Frederick (Edmund C. Davys). Orlando is manly and pragmatic, Haberle adding solidity to a role that’s sometimes overly romanticized.
Celia (Kristine Nielsen) and Rosalind (Kathleen McNenny) are vibrantly alive young women. At first, Nielsen’s Celia is so vibrant that she almost eclipses McNenny’s Rosalind. But McNenny has merely been biding her time waiting for the revelations of the second act that culminate in her enchanting solo epilogue. Both women are utterly endearing.
Patrick Garner romps merrily and wittily through Touchstone. Donoghue thoroughly enjoys playing both Le Beau and a light-fingered Mar-text. Davys is of compelling elegance as both dukes. Porro is a sweet-voiced Amiens accompanying himself on guitar prior to flying high as Hymen.
Helmar Augustus Cooper and Ntare Mwine are splendidly rural as Corin and Silvius, the latter a physical jelly as Phebe spurns him unmercifully. John Gould Rubin seems, at first, a mite over-precious as a longhaired Jaques, but his Seven Ages of Man moment in the sun is achieved with admirably quiet simplicity.
Tillinger has opted to make Audrey and Phebe hayseedy Southerners, Elizabeth Meadows Rouse’s fleshy Audrey projecting sexy intellectual vacancy with rare skill, and petite Annie Meisels ogling McNenny’s Ganymede/Rosalind with outrageous nerve.
Robert Waldman’s music — lyrical flute, guitar and cello at the start, a rousing song-and-dance calypso at the end — adds another layer to an already multilayered production in which even the fight scenes are believable.
The only weak link is Marcia Dixcy’s costumes, which seldom help define the characters and never flatter the actors. Vaguely Edwardian, they are particularly unkind to Rosalind and Celia in their opening scene in which they are forced to wear hideous suffragettish tailored suits. In act two poor Nielsen is made to look like Fergie, Duchess of York, on a very bad day, in pleated overlong skirt and clumpy boots.
But play, cast and director rise blithely above the unfortunate clothes in a remarkable production. Coincidentally, it’s running at the same time as the Hartford Stage Company’s season-opener, a well-received, uncharacteristically traditional Mark Lamos production of “Romeo and Juliet.”