A small banjolele emerges from the upstage curtain of the thrust stage, and the player gives the opening chords to “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.” The curtain parts and the ensemble members stride onto the stage, some with other instruments in hand. They’re garbed in ’20s gear, nicely put together by costume designer Arthur Oliver, and as a crooner takes to the microphone to warble the chorus, the cast breaks into the Charleston.
Does it matter that the song is actually more than a decade younger than the era portrayed? It does not. The success of this production—and it’s very successful—lies in a clearness of purpose, faithfulness to the clues of the text and beautifully paced energy. Director Tony Simotes leads a versatile cast through the play’s manic vicissitudes with few of the would-be improvements that can mar high-concept realizations.
There’s a joke at the heart of the play’s setting, which can be taken to be either the Ardennes region in France (where the playwright’s source material was set) or the Stratford-area Arden. Set designer Sandra Goldmark puts us in Paris at the top of the show, with miniatures of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Panthéon among the functional set pieces on an otherwise bare (but blue) stage. The forest, such as it is, is an upstage jumble of pipes and trees with a second level that will inspire impressive acrobatics from Orlando (Tony Roach) and Rosalind (Merritt Janson).
We’re introduced to Orlando, in the first of the many plot threads, as he complains to servant Adam (Malcolm Ingram, in an unexpected—but hey, why not?— north-country English accent) about his mean brother Oliver (Josh Aaron McCabe), setting us up for a quarrel between the siblings.
Roach bursts with youthful energy, while McCabe is more measured—plodding, even, in his early scenes. But by the time of his change of heart, late in the show, I had long since found his performance credible and enjoyable.
Janson, too, seemed a little uncertain at first—but it was me, not her, who had the problem. I want so much to like the character of Rosalind (and have so often been disappointed) that I’m too skeptical at the start. But Janson’s concept of boyishness, as she takes to trousers in an impersonation she pursues for most of the play, was measured with the exuberance of a young woman in love, and it worked excellently.
Two of the play’s most famous characters are Touchstone, the clown, and the melancholy Jacques. Both featured company veterans. Jonathan Epstein, nattily motley as Touchstone, brought a wonderful comic sensibility to his interpretation, giving the lines a winning freshness. To play Jacques as a woman was an inspired touch; even better was casting Tod Randolph, whose world-weariness still bore enough charm to make the familiar “Seven Ages of Man” monologue sound inspired.
Some of the roles are almost thankless, but Jonathan Croy’s shepherd, Corin, and Ryan Winkles’ adoring Silvius brought convincing humanity to their portrayals. Johnny Lee Davenport played both of the feuding Dukes with more than enough contrast: his mean Duke was all bellow, where more intra-character variety would have been useful. Similarly, Dana Harrison’s Phebe was a one-dimensional harridan whose sudden passion for the disguised Rosalind remained too cartoony. But what criticism I have is almost churlish in light of the overall joy and accessibility of the piece.
Director Simotes also provided good fight choreography where needed, as in the first-act wrestling match, where enough stylization of the action kept the effect light but believable. Alexander Sovronsky provided music for the show’s songs, most famously “Under the Greenwood Tree” and “It was a Lover and His Lass.” Music is an important part of the show, and Sovronsky’s settings were good enough for the purpose—but he upstaged himself by incorporating a French protest song, “La cavalcade,” sung compellingly by the exiled Duke’s forces, appropriately garbed in Foreign Legion attire. Sovronsky also provided the sound design, among the best I’ve recently heard.
My theory is that the popularity of pastoral comedies prompted Shakespeare to give his audience extra helpings of the ingredients, enough to culminate in a quadruple wedding. You want more? the play seems to say. See how you like it. To which I reply: Very much, thank you. Very much.