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Town and Country 

A new look at an old Shakespeare draws a clever link between urban and rural

Wednesday, Sep 27 2006
In the most dramatic moment in Jonathan Moscone's production of William Shakespeare's As You Like It, cousins Rosalind and Celia step off the cramped, cagelike platform where they've been virtually trapped for the entire first act, walk to the front of the stage in their elegant cocktail dresses and stilettos, and strip. After the bitter claustrophobia of the opening scenes, which culminate in the forced banishment from court of the two young women by Celia's father, Duke Frederick, the sudden nakedness comes across as a defiant act of emancipation — a powerful physicalization of their break from the stuffy trappings of courtly life.

After this revolutionary statement, I half expected Susannah Schulman and Julie Eccles to perform the rest of the play (as Rosalind and Celia, respectively) in the buff — or, at the very least, braless in bell-bottoms, tie-dye T-shirts, and floral leis. So it struck me as particularly odd when the two of them reappeared in the second act, embarking upon a strenuous backcountry hike into the Forest of Arden to seek out Rosalind's exiled father, with Schulman dressed in a tailored pantsuit and fedora and Eccles in a taffeta ball gown and matching heels. It seems that old habits die hard: Slumming it in the woods is one thing, but doing it sans Giorgio Armani and Vera Wang is quite another.

The fantastical plot of As You Like It is built around two diametrically opposed worlds: the urban (oppressive, shallow, artificial) and the rural (open, meaningful, natural). It's common for productions of the comedy, written around 1600, to play up the contrast. In his landmark 1977 production at the Schaubühne in Berlin, for example, the great German director Peter Stein transformed the theater into an ice-blue chamber for the austere court scenes, and then made his audience walk through a tunnel to a nearby film studio, which had been flamboyantly transformed into a magical forest for the occasion. And in British director Peter Hall's recent production (which ran at the Curran Theatre last year), Rosalind and Celia's light, comfortable country clothes provided sharp relief to the heavy, schoolmarmlike dresses they wore at court.

Moscone uses similar devices to explore the disparity between the two universes. In their elegant, monochrome blazers and dresses, the courtiers look like they winter in St. Barths or the Riviera. Even Rod Gnapp, as Charles the Wrestler, appears in a pimpin' dark suit. The forest's shepherds and shepherdesses, however, look strictly thrift store. The contrast between town and country doesn't stop at costumes: While court scenes take place largely on the small inner stage, the Forest of Arden sections use all the available space to create a feeling of expansive freedom. Drawing on the play's most famous line ("All the world's a stage"), Moscone uses not only the full performance area, but parts of the auditorium, too. The production even sprawls out into the picnic grounds outside the theater, featuring bits of paper inscribed with Shakespeare's poetry tacked to trees (echoing Rosalind's lover Orlando's own foliage-embellishing poetic efforts). Also, while the dull thud of a house music bass line occasionally punctuates the cocktail partyÐthemed court scenes, Gina Leishman's euphoric, gypsy-inspired musical score (brought to life by the accordion, violin, vocal, and double bass skills of wandering troubadours Dan Cantrell, Lila Sklar, and Djordje Stijepovic) is as integral to this Arden as the carpet of fallen leaves.

While most other As You Like It directors seem only too happy to flee the ugly world of high society along with Rosalind and Celia, Moscone distinguishes himself by refusing to turn his back on the court. The two worlds coexist here, providing tension and relief in equal amounts. If Rosalind and Celia turn up in Arden in designer duds — with court clown Touchstone wobbling along behind them on a bicycle laden with matching Louis Vuitton luggage — it's because they can't completely divest themselves of the familiar, civilized world. The same could be said of Rosalind's father, Duke Senior, and his entourage, barbecuing dinner in the forest in tuxedos.

The porous membrane between civilized society and the country life provides moments of wry humor and thoughtfulness in Moscone's otherwise wildly entertaining, rambunctious production. For example, the white woolÐupholstered bench at the back of the inner stage in the first act looks like no more than a piece of minimalist designer furniture. But when, later in the show, we see shepherds carrying yokes piled with newly shorn fleece and knitting white yarn, we can't help but think about the interdependence of urban consumers and rural producers.

The blending of court and country isn't always so effective, though. Take L. Peter Callender's dual performance as Duke Frederick and Duke Senior. The doubling of these roles is common in productions of the play and ought to carry particular potency in this incarnation, with the lines between Arden and the court so blurred. But Callender's schizophrenic swings from one character to the other lack poise and subtlety: He plays good cop and bad cop, but nothing in between.

Despite such lapses, the production's blending of the two ways of life articulates something profound about humankind's ability (or lack thereof) to adapt to and survive in foreign environments. For all her bravura and seeming enthusiasm for the rural lifestyle, Schulman's Rosalind seems resistant to change. There's an aggressive, almost lunatic edge to the actor's jaunty performance, as she runs around trying to apply the customs of courtly romance to country lust against a fittingly full moon. When the local yokels won't play by the rules, she becomes increasingly bossy and impetuous. Ordering people around — as Eccles' expressive Celia watches in discomfort bordering on disgust — Schulman behaves like a spoiled little rich girl.

This Rosalind's upper-crust background chafes against the simple life. The determination with which she pursues happiness hints at a deeper desire to stop playing games in the forest and return, husband in hand, to real life. Wearing Armani in Arden might not be pragmatic, yet it's a survival mechanism, a way to cling to one's identity in a fast-changing world.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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