“As You Like It” is one of Shakespeare’s blithe pastoral comedies about madcap young lovers who dress up in silly costumes and run off to the woods to do incredibly stupid things. There is legitimate textual justification, then, for a neophyte director like Erica Schmidt to send a small, agile company of youthful performers into an East Village parking lot to dress up in silly costumes and do goofy things. Back inside from the parking lot (where this ensemble piece originated as part of the 2001 New Work Now! Festival and the 2000 New York Intl. Fringe Festival), the clean-lined show plays like gangbusters on an open stage with minimal lighting, zero scenery and bleacherlike audience seating. If a summer tour in the city’s parks and playgrounds isn’t on Public topper George C. Wolfe’s mind, it should be.
Faced with divvying up 15 roles among six performers, some directors might opt for well-versed actors blessed with malleable vocal equipment. This is not the route Schmidt took. (Indeed, were it not for the admirable clarity of their delivery, the uninflected tones of these pedestrian voices would be hard to take for two hours.) Instead, she went for a full-frontal physical attack. Working her ensemble like a precision team of athletes, she was able to break down the play into visually stylized movements, something like acting games, only tighter.
It works here because there is matter as well as method to the choreographed staging. Assigning the mercurial Touchstone and the dour Jaques to the same actor (Johnny Giacalone) is in itself a clever comment on the curious quirks of human intelligence. In the same way, asking an actor (Jennifer Ikeda) to play the uppity shepherdess Phebe and thick-as-a-plank Audrey is an amusing way of examining two extremes of female foolishness. Although asking yet another thesp (Drew Cortese) to play four distinctly different parts may just be showing off, casting those immortal lovers Orlando (Lorenzo Pisoni) and Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) was well and earnestly done.
Doubling as the noble Orlando and his envious brother Oliver, Pisoni carries off his quicksilver character changes with the grace of a dancer and the charm of a matinee idol — and with nothing more than a black bowler hat to signal the transformation. Although the entire company relies on quick costume changes and mannered gestures to shrug in and out of character, Pisoni gets to perform standing back-flips and make a running scramble up a 20-foot pole to post a love letter to his Rosalind.
As the object of his affection, Howard is an enchanting Rosalind, spirited and intelligent in her readings of trenchant observations on the vagaries of love (“Maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives”). She is also quite lovely to look at, even in her ugly disguise as the “moonish youth” Ganymede. One would think that Schmidt, who did hard time in wardrobe, might have come up with something more suggestive than the garage mechanic’s overalls and street-punk cap she chose for Ganymede.
On that point, Schmidt’s costumes are way off the beam for a play in which characters don disguises not only to hide their true selves, but as a way of freeing themselves to explore the nature and limits of identity. Although she does clever things with hats, there is neither theme nor continuity to her ragbag costumes, whose motley styles and patterns are fussy without being fun.