How many theater critics have punned on the title of As You Like It for a cheap joke? It’s so tempting — and unoriginal. That’s the play’s dilemma as well. It’s very tempting for a theater to produce As You Like It, one of William Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, but it’s difficult to be original with it. A thousand sitcoms and films have mined its banished lovers, the woman-in-drag wooing her real love, the comic sidekicks commenting on the main lovers’ passion and so forth.
Directed by Terry Martin, As You Like It is the first Shakespeare play that Addison’s WaterTower Theatre has ever staged (a co-production with Southern Methodist University’s drama program). It’s a handsome production with superb comic performances among the folks who accompany Orlando and Rosalind as they flee Frederick, the usurping duke. The show features a flavorful shift to Louisiana in the ’50s, which permits an entertaining zydeco band onstage, complete with fiddler and washboard rhythm section. As far as the well-worn directorial gambit of transposing a Shakespeare play to a different setting goes, Cajun country proves a fresh stand-in for the Forest of Arden.
But once past the comedy and the fiyou-on-the-bayou atmosphere, this As You Like It has little feel for romance. The young leads spark no sparks: Lydia Mackay is a generic, inert Rosalind — and Rosalind is Shakespeare’s greatest heroine-disguised-as-a-boy — while Dan Forsythe’s reedy voice often makes his exiled swain Orlando sound whiny. Worse is Mr. Martin’s utter lack of pace: The show slogs through the swamps while the comedians and musicians try to deliver some pep to the proceedings. But at three hours in length, the drowsy proceedings win.
I must add at this point, for reasons of transparency and full disclosure, that Chamblee Ferguson is a friend, and Chamblee’s clown, Touchstone, is one of the production’s achievements. You needn’t take my word; here are Lawson Taitte’s and Glenn Arbery’s reviews.
Touchstone is a fiendishly difficult character to make funny. For modern audiences, his humor is like a Rubik’s cube of obscure wordplay. The other characters go on about how witty and knave-ish Touchstone is — Rosalind: “Thou speak’st wiser than thou art ware of.” Touchstone: “Nay, I shall ne’er be ware of mine own wit till I break my shins against it” — but to us, he might as well be speaking in algebraic equations.
The solution is to find physical humor to illustrate what Touchstone says — or to extend and amplify it, which the goony-limbed Chamblee does with great spirit, notably in his “Lie Direct” lecture on the taxonomy of insults and challenges. Costume designer Jennifer Ables has dressed Touchstone as Jughead from the Archie comics — typical of the ’50s pop-culture icon references that find Orlando looking like James Dean. These actually don’t add much (most people probably didn’t even catch the Jughead allusion, for example). Mercifully, they’re all chucked when everyone flees for casual Friday in the backwoods.
Except, that is, for Jacques’s get-up. He’s dressed as a Beat poet, and Sean Hennigan’s melancholy philosopher proves to be the production’s high point. The pose of wise old jazzbo gives Mr. Hennigan the air of a bittersweet raconteur and an appreciator of life’s follies. If Touchstone’s verbal wit is a hurdle for a comic performer, Jacques’ “Seven Ages of Man” speech is such a familiar chestnut, it takes real talent and thought to make it mean anything anymore. Thanks to Mr. Hennigan’s superlative way with the language, his rendition is the most touching I’ve witnessed, a marvel of phrasing and tender emotion.
And in a minor role, normally played entirely for pathos, Gordon Fox uncovers some real comedy as the aged Adam. By citing these three performers, I don’t mean to imply that the pros are the only worthy ones here, while the younger actors — SMU drama students — are all sorely lacking. Ariel Woodiwiss, for instance, is so game as Rosalind’s friend Celia, one wonders how she would handle the convincing ardor that Ms. Mackay’s Rosalind needs.
But it is true that the show’s “mon cher” Cajun accents are all over the place, although as with the somnolent timing, this may have had as much to do with the direction and the need for more rehearsal. In any event, WaterTower taking on a Shakespeare comedy (with SMU) is a welcome ambition, a welcome expansion of the company’s range.
But this production needs a straight injection of Tabasco sauce to wake it up.