A joint venture by BAM, the Old Vic and Neal Street to create a classical repertory company, the Bridge Project got off to a promising start last year with a solid double-bill of “The Cherry Orchard” and “The Winter’s Tale.” However, with the inaugural offering of its second season, the ambitious three-year enterprise hits a snag. Director Sam Mendes establishes a mood of such pervasive gloom and ponderousness that when it comes time for merry reversal and romance, his laborious staging of “As You Like It” can’t quite shake off the pall.
When questioned about being “a melancholy fellow,” Stephen Dillane’s worldly cynic Jaques confesses, “I do love it better than laughing.” The same could be said of Mendes, who remembers too late that this is supposed to be a popular romantic comedy. Instead it’s all very dour, from Paul Pyant’s glowering lighting of act one, to tussles straight out of “Fight Club,” through a misty Forest of Arden that seems a more likely home for horror than a glade of enchantment and magical conversions from evil to virtuousness. Even the forest exiles’ suppertime ditties sound like mopey indie-rock dirges. Life is anything but jolly here.
The dichotomy of darkness and light of course is an essential part of this and many other Shakespeare plays that end happily. But the balance toward the former is so heavy, and the dramatic scenes often so overwrought that the shift to a more uplifting mood is strained.
Imbalance of another kind also hobbles the production, calling into question the success of the Bridge Project’s trans-Atlantic formation. Almost across the board, the British cast members are superior to their American colleagues; their characters are more robustly inhabited and their command of the language more easeful. This is not intended to support the facile argument that the Brits always do Shakespeare better than the Yanks. But the bad casting choices tend to grate more with the home team.
Notable among them is Christian Camargo’s Orlando. While the actor was a well-regarded Hamlet last season, he’s less capable of abandoning the serious young man to release the lovestruck poet. It’s a joyless, lethargic performance that dampens his romance with fellow exile Rosalind.
In that key role, and as Rosalind’s incognito male identity, Ganymede, Juliet Rylance hits all the right notes of open-heartedness, strength of character and plucky, independent spirit. She also brings a lovely, graceful physicality to the part.
But the production’s misfires cramp her charm, denying Rosalind the nurturing influences that should steer her toward emotional maturity. Crucially, for a comedy about the liberating power of love, Rylance doesn’t successfully tether Rosalind’s caution to apprehension or uncertainty as to Orlando’s affections. Without sufficient emotional engagement in their obstacle-strewn romance, the extended game-playing and elaborate deceptions of the play become tedious, making its blissful outcome seem even more contrived.
Shortcomings among the minor players are more damaging, however, particularly Ashlie Atkinson’s squawking country shrew, Phoebe, fishing for easy laughs with her contemporary finger-snapping attitude; Michelle Beck’s dreary Celia; and Jenni Barber’s shrill caricature as lusty wench Audrey, played like Britney Spears off her meds. Even the ever-reliable Alvin Epstein strays from the poignancy of his loyal old servant into cartoonland in his second role as the vicar Martext.
The comic mugging, crass pantomime shtick and reveling rustics of act two almost make you long for a return of the earlier lugubriousness.
Another actor, like Camargo, who has distinguished himself in dramatic roles but seems less comfortable here, Thomas Sadoski (“Reasons to Be Pretty”) struggles to find much mirth in the wearying comedy of court clown Touchstone.
Alongside Rylance on the plus side, Dillane brings sour wit and intelligent reflection to Jaques, making a wistful narrative of his “Seven Ages of Man” soliloquy; Anthony O’Donnell injects lively humor into Corin, the shepherd; and, outfitted like an oily junior broker in a cheap suit, Edward Bennett is arrestingly villainous as Orlando’s scheming brother Oliver, later making a persuasive transformation. Michael Thomas also does a fine job in the dual roles of the divided Dukes.
Mark Bennett’s musical filigrees add a welcome layer of subtlety to the atmosphere. And Tom Piper’s set makes a visually striking transition from austere fortress to forest, as Duke Frederick and his courtiers are transformed into Duke Senior and his band, switching from their finery to the raggedy clothing of pastoral life. Catherine Zuber’s semi-modern-dress costumes are full of deft, character-defining touches.
As the ensemble finds its feet in this play and begins rehearsals for the season’s second entry, “The Tempest” (opening Feb. 25), one hopes the performances might grow into a more harmonious unit and allow the poetry to take flight.
In the meantime, one question remains: What’s with Mendes’ Bob Dylan fixation? Last year in “The Winter’s Tale,” Ethan Hawke channeled the music legend as Autolycus; this year Dillane’s Jaques does an even more exact impersonation, with harmonica. What’s next, Caliban covering “Blowin’ in the Wind?”