Elizabeth Norment doesn't believe in "the sappy view that love conquers all," which the happy endings of Shakespeare's great domestic comedies would appear to suggest.
Yet for the past month--as Beatrice in the Grove Shakespeare Festival's "Much Ado About Nothing"--the actress has been persuading audiences that love can overwhelm one of the Bard's most skeptical, anti-romantic women.
And now as Rosalind in "As You Like It"--which begins tonight at the outdoor Festival Amphitheatre--she is about to portray a woman who not only falls in love at first sight but whose rite of passage from repression and romantic yearning to liberation and marriage makes her the Bard's ideal heroine.
"Everybody gets matched up in both plays, and in that sense there is resolution," Norment says. "But I don't see that there is such a clear-cut happy ending anywhere. I tend to think that even in Shakespeare's lightest comedies there are a lot of ambiguities.
"You have to look at who is matched up with whom. (In 'Much Ado') Hero marries a man who has viciously spurned her. Even Beatrice and Benedick have so much hostile energy between them that you have to wonder how mature that relationship actually is."
Similarly, the multiple match-ups in "As You Like It" during the final scene with Hymen, the god of marriage, are less harmonious than they might seem. While Rosalind's union with Orlando is perfect, Touchstone has no intention of remaining faithful to Audrey, and Phebe clearly is settling for second-best in Silvius.
But there is no question in Norment's mind that coming to the Grove for the back-to-back roles of Beatrice and Rosalind has been a marriage made in heaven for her, particularly after her virtual full-time focus on television in recent years with only snatches of stage work between guest shots on "L.A. Law," "Hooperman," "St. Elsewhere" and TV movies such as "The Final Days."
"It has completely rejuvenated my love for theater," says Norment, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama whose professional career began in 1980 as a founding member of Robert Brustein's American Repertory Theatre. "It has certainly challenged my skills to the max. What Shakespeare's roles give back to you on your investment is just astonishing. The deeper you dig the more there is. You will never hit bottom."
Moreover, she credits her Grove co-star, David Drummond, who plays both Benedick and Orlando, with giving the chance for her to experiment with the sort of physical acting that she rarely gets to do. He is not only "superb as an actor," she says, but his height (6 foot 6) allows her to play aggressively erotic or sweetly demure, whichever the roles demand.
"It's thrilling for me because, as Rosalind says of herself, 'I am more than common tall,' " notes the 5-foot-8 actress. "If I am opposite a man of my height or slightly taller, which is often the case, I would have to modify some of the things we do."
During "Much Ado," for instance, Norment and Drummond turned their first passionate kiss--a long-awaited moment for Beatrice and Benedick--into a highly charged, bodily embrace. "He lifted me up, and I had my arms around his neck and my legs twined around his hips," Norment recalls. "It was very erotic, and it just wouldn't have been an option with a smaller man."
By the same token, there are moments in "As You Like It" when Norment jumps on Drummond's back or sits on his lap confident that he has the strength to bear her weight. That security enables her to play mignon, as the French say for delicate and tiny.
" Mignon has not been the theme of my life, so it's a pleasant change," says Norment. "No matter how liberated a woman is, sometimes it's nice to feel small or taken care of. When that sense of succumbing is part of the role and can be physicalized with a man as tall and strong as David, it's delightful."
Norment, 37, who lives in Los Angeles with a landscape architect, first came to Southern California from New York in 1983 as an ingenue opposite Peter Ustinov in "Beethoven's Tenth." The play, which Ustinov also wrote, premiered at the Ahmanson Theatre and toured the country before heading to Broadway for a short-lived run.
"I decided not to go back with the show," she recalls, "because there was such an abundance of (television and film) work for me out here."
Norment, a Washington native whose father was an administrator with the CIA, spent her childhood in Japan and Germany and her adolescence in Washington. After attending the University of Chicago for two years, she transferred to Cornell University because of its broader theater program and graduated with a bachelor's degree in English literature.
Following three years of graduate drama training at Yale--from 1976 to 1979--Norment was invited with about half her class to join American Rep, which Brustein created at Harvard University when he was denied tenure as dean of the Yale drama school.
"It was a fascinating time," she recalls. "I worked for a full season and a half, then went to New York and came out here. I was back (at American Rep) in 1985, so I've spent a total of about 2 1/2 seasons there. That's where I've done the bulk of my Shakespeare."
Jules Aaron, the director of "Much Ado," brought Norment to the Grove. While working at the Colony Theatre in Los Angeles earlier this year, he saw her in a piece called "Summit Conference," about a fictional encounter between the mistresses of Hitler and Mussolini. That play was set in 1939, the same year Aaron had chosen to set "Much Ado."
"When he saw me do the style of that period," she says, "it made him think I could pull it off in Shakespeare."
Once Grove artistic director Thomas F. Bradac met Norment, he asked her to audition for "As You Like It," which he has updated to 1904 and set in the United States.
"Jules came into 'Much Ado' with a more militantly clear-cut version of what he wanted the statement of the play to be," Norment says. "Tom, on the other hand, was more interested in the rehearsal process. He wanted the play to be a discovery that we all made together."
Even so, Bradac hardly lacked a conception. "As You Like It" is a romantic comedy "that contains some of the great moral assumptions that underlie the pastoral mode: simple virtues are preserved by those who lead a simple life," he explains.
The updated setting is intended to illustrate the clash of forces in a society dominated by the Industrial Revolution. As Bradac notes, it is a time when robber barons hold sway, children labor in the factories, women in the sweatshops. Yet 80% of the nation still lives on farms, feminism is on the rise, and the future beckons.
The Forest of Arden, to which Rosalind flees from her ruthless uncle's court with her cousin Celia and the clown Touchstone, represents liberation from "ambition, envy, avarice and the treachery that goes with them," Bradac says. "Arden (is) a place that makes demands on both physical and moral courage. (But) it is free from human malice."
Indeed, "all the characters experience a huge liberation" in Arden, says Norment, but Rosalind's particular rite of passage is underscored by the costumes themselves.
"All the corsets and the uptight clothing of the period are emblematic of the way women are bound up by all kinds of rules and regulations," the actress points out. "When she dons man's clothing to disguise herself as Ganymede, she experiences a new freedom. She can express all the intelligence that has always been buried in her."
Meanwhile, Norment contends, the Grove presents its own sort of Arden.
"The company is young and exuberant and unjaded," she says, "which has been very refreshing for me. It's always impossible to be objective about something you're part of, but I think the talent level here also is extremely high. And that is enormously gratifying."
The Grove Shakespeare Festival gives a preview performance of "As You Like It" by William Shakespeare tonight at 8:30 at the Festival Amphitheatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. Tickets: $12. The play's regular run, with tickets priced at $14 to $23, opens Friday and runs through Aug. 18. Information: (714) 636-7213.