Director Michael Mendelson set As You Like It in France in the 1930’s. While there isn’t anything in the play itself that makes it a good fit for the pre-World War II era specifically, there also isn’t anything about that time that really detracts from the play either. The audience knew it was the 1930’s by the costumes and that the setting was France by the accordion music, which isn’t necessarily much to go on. But since the Forest of Arden is supposed to be a very “other” place, there was just enough setting and not too much.
I have so many good things to say about this production right off the bat. The casting was brilliant. The acting was amazing. Christi Miles as Rosalind was delightful, as were Darius Pierce (Touchstone), Andy Lee-Hillstrom (Silvius), Rhianna Walton (Audrey), Jake Street (Orlando), Dana Millican (Phoebe) and Melissa Whitney (Celia). Jill Westerby made a very melancholy and sympathetic if rather harsh Jacques. David Heath’s Adam melted my heart. Mary Kadderly’s music played on a single accordion and sung by the cast was perfect. The set’s mult-colored aspen trees were whimsical, enchanting and just plain spiffing.
Unfortunately the whimsy of the sets didn’t carry over to the rest of the play, which took a much darker approach to the story than I was completely comfortable with. I’m not saying there wasn’t comedy; the audience really enjoyed Touchstone’s antics, and the humor in Shakespeare’s words came out loud and clear. But the levity didn’t extend to what is really a very funny plot. I felt like we were asked to take very seriously ridiculous situations, like love at first sight (which the characters don’t even take all that seriously), the absurdities that occur with a cross-dressing heroine, love triangles, and someone so head-over-heels in love that he will post reams of love letters on trees.
Granted, the play itself has some quite serious and moving bits – Rosalind’s banishment, the bits between Adam and Orlando, Oliver’s repentance – and this production handled these bits very well. But Mendelson seemed to completely miss the fact that basically As You Like It is a fairy tale, and as such, should be handled lightly throughout. Fairy tales can be dark, but they seldom take themselves very seriously. They know they are absurd, and they don’t try to be anything else. Instead of a hysterical story with enough twists and turns and awkward situations to fill a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Mendelson gave us a serious play with distressingly problematic situations and some very funny characters. This approach may work with some of Shakespeare’s other comedies (All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, Merchant of Venice, possibly even the Tempest), but for a play that is so absurdly whimsical as As You Like It, it fell flat.
All that aside, it was a very well-executed production, and I’ll be interested in seeing what else Portland Shakespeare Project comes up with in the future.