AS YOU LIKE IT: Loud, fast, highly physical, and filled with the ache of love.
Up close, the Forest of Arden, an elevated glade tucked into Boston Common, looks like verdant, dappled clouds tacked to two-by-fours. But wander back to the Parkman Bandstand, before which As You Like It unfolds as this year’s offering of Free Shakespeare (presented by Citi Performing Arts Center through August 3), and set designer Scott Bradley’s jumble of cutouts on poles looks more like a forest. Such are the perplexities of pitching an al fresco show to thousands of people. As director Steven Maler knows from 12 years of amplifying the Bard in the city’s great outdoors, subtleties designed for those in front will be lost to those picnicking near Tremont Street. So his As You Like It is loud, fast, and highly physical. But the ache of love at the core of Shakespeare’s romantic pastorale will be felt as through an analgesic.
This is the second time As You Like It has taken a turn on Boston Common. It’s a natural, since the comedy quickly leaves the repressive court for the more liberating — if also cruel — elements. The mercurial Duke Frederick has usurped his brother Duke Senior’s kingdom, and the true duke has taken up rustic residence in the forest. In Maler’s early-20th-century staging, Frederick is a fascist whose underlings wear red armbands bearing a Mussolini-esque logo. And Duke Senior, himself a carnivorous usurper in the land of Bambi, has arrived in Arden in the vintage airplane we see crash-landed at the back of the woods.
Rosalind, the deposed duke’s daughter, remains at court to keep Duke Frederick’s daughter, Celia, company. At least she does for Shakespeare’s first act — long enough to be love-smacked by Orlando, youngest son of Sir Rowland de Bois, come to try his luck against Frederick’s thuggish wrestler, Charles. Charles doesn’t knock Orlando out, but Rosalind does. When she’s banished by her uncle and dons male clothing to head for the forest, Celia goes along, as does the ribald jester, Touchstone — here pedaling a bicycle-drawn cart from which he takes a break to shake up some martinis. Orlando, to escape his malevolent older brother’s murderous designs, also goes into the woods, accompanied by a faithful septuagenarian.
Before you know it, Orlando is tacking bad love poems to the lumber and being treated to romantic aversion therapy by the effeminate young forester who looks a lot like his own true love. Given the gender-bent situation in which a woman disguised as a man makes love to a man (both of them in Shakespeare’s day played by men), some modern productions, among them a few all-male ones, have seemed to credit Shakespeare with the invention of the omnisexual. The production on the Common remains mostly hetero — save for a moment when Orlando and his mock boy love share an unexpected kiss that turns our hero quite quizzical for a moment.
Those who count Rosalind among Shakespeare’s grand creations may not be satisfied by Marin Ireland’s antic take on the character, with her elongated Valley-girl vowels, her squealing giggle fits, and her hands that can’t keep themselves off Orlando. She is engaging, in a screwball-comedy-heroine way, but there is no sense of her ruefully counseling Orlando in the ways of love while at the same time drowning in it herself. She and Ali Marsh’s Celia pass the time at court as if at a slumber party, and Marsh’s magazine-enraptured princess of a Celia seems to wake from it faster than Ireland’s giddily besotted Rosalind does.
Obie winner Frederick Weller (of the USA Network drama In Plain Sight) is a strong if initially tongue-tied Orlando. Let’s face it, the lovesick wrestler can seem a little wimpy: no match for Rosalind. But Weller’s Orlando bursts with emotional defiance, whether it’s directed at his older brother, Duke Frederick, or the woodland courtiers he imagines too savage to share. And I liked his ambivalence in the awkward scenes with Rosalind as Ganymede, whom he can’t decide whether to laugh at or grab.
Of course, more goes on in the forest than this one warped courtship. And Maler fills the rustication with song and dance, the racing background music pungently pierced by Tom Gleadow’s near-operatic renditions of the folk songs from which Duke Senior hanger-on Jaques sucks melancholy “as a weasel sucks eggs.” Fred Sullivan Jr.’s Jaques is pretty operatic himself, investing the depressive lord with a melancholia that’s downright flamboyant. And Larry Coen is a more natty than nasty Touchstone, the “motley fool” gone AWOL from court to delight Jaques in the forest. Gradually shedding his yellow pinstriped suit to go native among the “country copulatives,” Coen’s Touchstone is a bright presence, whether debating Jim Wrynn’s laid-back old Corin or trying to feel up Becky Webber’s fiddle-playing Audrey (who decks him).
Some broad-comic sadomasochism is provided by Jennie Israel’s Phebe, the plain-Jane shepherdess who falls for Ganymede, and Paul Melendy’s Silvius, the long-suffering swain who sees nirvana in Phebe’s “inky brows” and “bugle eyeballs.” Although he gets stripped, pummeled, and ridden like a horse on his way to bliss, Melendy’s gangly, yelping Silvius captures the pain of love better than anything else in the production.