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As You Like It

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
— excerpt from Jaques' famous monologue,.

In spring time, in spring time, the only pretty ring-time,
Hey no-ni no-ni, no-ni
Sweet lovers love the spring.

— from composer Stephen Schwartz's jazzy riff.
Hannah Cabell and Andre DeShields
For most of its 100 minutes, John Doyle's As You Like It at the Classic Stage Company where he's now artistic director, doubles its pleasures. That's even though the running time has been cut to probably half of its usual length and there are just ten actors to play out the multiple games in a forest that doesn't have a single tree.

Shakespeare's pastoral comedy has invited tinkering long before Doyle won his place in all lists of innovative directors. The last As You Like it at Shakespeare in the Park was set in the antebellum South with bluegrass music by Steve Martin.

From the looks of the costumes the current production is a mix of jazz era-depression and the 1940s. It's eliminated characters and scenes and pared the play to its essentials — four intertwined love stories with the characters falling for each other faster than you can say "brevity is the soul of wit."

Given that this is the Bard's most song-heavy play, it's also a perfect opportunity for Doyle, to include his signature device of using actor-instrumentalists. In this case he's cast several roles with musical theater veterans to sing and play the jazzy variations of Shakespeare's music by Stephen Schwartz, the composer/lyricist of Wicked and other hit musicals.

As You Like It
Bob Stillman and Ellen Burstyn (Photo: Richard Termine)
Doyle has made other interesting casting choices. For box office star power and novelty he's cast Ellen Burstyn as the melancholy observer Jacques. She's the oldest Jacques I've ever seen, as are Andre De Shields' and Cass Morgan's Touchstone and Aubrey. Besides this age and gender diversity, we also have the key roles of Orlando and Celia played by African-American actors.

The play's essential pleasures are unharmed by all the text and character cuts. The best lines are still here and the main story still has Roasalind fleeing persecution from the court of her Uncle Duke Frederick. She's accompanied by her devoted Cousin Celia (Frederick's daughter) and Touchstone, the court jester. Their destination is Arden Forest and it's here where meet-ups with the rest of the characters follow and the various romances bloom.

The pivotal love story centers on Rosalind and Orlando who's also exiled (in his case by mean elder brother Oliver). The happily ever after of their romance is delayed by her continuing to pretend to be a young man.

Hannah Cabell is a terrifically engaging Rosalind. She tops her performance off with a powerful epilogue soliloquy in which she admits that a good play may need no epilogue but that "good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues."

Quincy Tyler Bernstine is a riotously funny Celia. And Bob Stillman masterfully morphs from the meanie Duke Frederick into Duke Senior, the usurped brother who now also seeks refuge in Arden. Stillman, a fine pianist, not only does full justice to Schwartz's jazzy piano riffs but lines like "sweet are the uses of adversity/Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,/Wears yet a precious jewel in his head. . ."

Overall,the whole closely knit ensemble is fun to watch. As Stillman scores extra points with his piano playing, so does Leenya Rideout's violin playing Phoebe, the shepherdess who prefers Rosalind-cum-Ganymede, over the smitten with her Silvius (David Samuel).

If I had to pick a single standout from all these excellent performers, I wouldn't hesitate for a minute: He may be older than most Touchstones but I can't recall seeing a more memorable one than song and dance veteran Andre De Shields. In his deliciously witty argyle patterned costume (bravo to Ann Hould Ward)) he slithers around the stage knowingly and truer words were never spoken with more feeling and clarity than his "The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly."

Ellen Burstyn, another well known senior citizen on board, captures the wry, outsiderdom of Jacques and looks mighty handsome in her pants suit and feodora hat. However, her performance is too understated and her voice too thin to make the most of the big ages of man speech.

As for the Forest of Arden where the entire cast's adventures and romances play out, don't expect Doyle, who's also the designer, to have the stage somehow sprout trees and other bucolic props. His design concept calls for imagination and an open mind on the part of the audience. A back wall is hung with a flowing curtain. The only furnishings are the piano and some trunks that the actors sit on and move around as needed. To capture that aura of enchantment usually handled more realistically Doyle has left it to Jim Baldassari to cover the ceiling with atmosphere and mood setting globular lights that change colors in tandem with what's happening below. Very clever, though at times distracting and, as I said, calling for an open mind.

Since Stephen Schwartz is a stellar musical theater composer, it's not surprising that his music, though mostly in bits and pieces, is more integral than incidental. The finale which has the entire cast singing Schwartz's Spring song, it actually feels like the end of a musical mdash; the musical Shakespeare might well be writing if he were still with us today.

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As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Directed and designed by John Doyle
Music by Stephen Schwartz
Cast: Ellen Burstyn (Jaques), Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Celia), Noah Brody (Oliver/Corin), Hannah Cabell (Rosalind), Andre De Shields (Touchstone), Cass Morgan (Old Anna/Audrey), Leenya Rideout (Phoebe), David Samuel (Charles/Silvius), Kyle Scatliffe (Orlando) and Bob Stillman (Duke Frederick/Duke Senior).
Music Supervisor: Mary-Mitchell Cambell
Costumes: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting: Mike Baldassari
Hair and Wigs: J. Jared Janas
Props: Andrew Diaz
Stage Manager: Kate West
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Classic Stage 136 East 13th Street 352-3101
From 9/13/17;opening 9/28/17; closing 9/29/17.
Tuesday through Thursday evenings at 7 pm; Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/23 press preview

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