A Dark and Somber ‘As You Like It’ in Balboa Park
For opening night of “As You Like It” at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, the Forest of Arden fell victim to the Park of Balboa.
The Davies is the outdoor venue in the Old Globe’s three-theater complex, and it’s normally a grand setting for Shakespeare under the stars. Saturday evening, however, the proximity of a boisterous wedding reception and unusually vociferous sea lions at the nearby San Diego Zoo brought repeated intrusions into Stephen Wadsworth’s staging of Shakespeare’s popular comedy.
Such unscripted noises might not have been so invasive in a breezier production. But Wadsworth has made this “As You Like It” a dark comedy, visually and emotionally, particularly in the first act--and that stanza suffered most.
Even without the extraneous disquiet, however, this production is uneven. Wadsworth has compiled a commendable and extensive directorial resume, but this is his first Shakespeare, and he seems to have been overly in awe of the Bard’s words. Too often, the director has his characters--especially the men--face the audience or each other, keep their arms stiffly at their sides and declaim. The proceedings become static, recitation rather than dramatization.
It’s unfortunate, because Wadsworth otherwise shows ingenuity in stage movement. Spectators at a wrestling match revolve swiftly around the combatants, heightening the sense of action. And scene changes generally flow smoothly, with principals in the next one heading on stage as the current one finishes.
“As You Like It"--with its familiar slew of characters banished to the Forest of Arden, then getting maneuvered by the cross-dressing Rosalind into love matches amid villains who repent and brothers who reconcile--should be fun. But the recurring speechifying, combined with the generally somber lighting by Peter Maradudin, frequently give this production the look and tone of a Shakespearean tragedy.
Matters improve greatly in the second act, spurred by Francesca Faridany’s exuberant machinations as Rosalind/Ganymede. Even then, however, the production underuses the clown Touchstone. Played disappointingly by Laurence O’Dwyer, he’s more pedantic than antic. Still, his costume is a hoot. The showpiece of Anna Oliver’s sumptuous designs, it dresses him like a walking checkerboard, with a hat resembling a sprig of aging broccoli.
In a further irony--another rethinking by Wadsworth?--the most animated man in the early going is Jaques, notorious for wallowing in melancholy and usually played as dolorous. In the person of Ivar Brogger, he pops on stage in his burnished-gold garb, smile beaming and arms gesturing, and sparkles with welcome liveliness among a generally uninspiring group.
For the famous “seven ages of man” speech, however, Brogger assumes the proper serious mien. And Wadsworth touchingly underscores the closing lines--about man reverting to a second infancy--by having Orlando walk downstage carrying his aged assistant Adam. It’s a moment made more poignant by recalling the traditional belief that Adam was originally portrayed by Shakespeare.
Tom Lynch’s fine set features a small, oblong stage-upon-the-stage, surrounded by the fields and trees of Arden, with the makeshift foliage blending seamlessly into the natural background of Balboa Park. Jeff Ladman’s sound design, a few microphone scrapes aside, projects the dialogue and songs crisply. And, hey, that undesigned sound wasn’t all bad--the play’s wedding finale was accented by the popping of distant fireworks.
* “As You Like It,” Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego, Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 15. $23-39. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.