Monday, April 19, 2010

As You Like It, Théâtre Marigny

Since moving to Paris, my love of the English language has deepened and developed in unanticipated ways. I never thought I would become so acutely aware of and fall so deeply in love with my own language as I have while living in that of another. And, surrounded by a language and a culture I speak, but don't have an identity in, I indulge at any opportunity I can to be immersed in English at its most crafted, its most poetic, its most magical: on the stage. I have seen brilliant performances of Shakespeare in Paris, and indeed, one of the most extraordinary theatrical experiences was the Wooster Group's staging of Williams' Le Vieux Carré. And so, it was with great enthusiasm that I got tickets for Sam Mendes version of As You Like It.

I wasn't so drawn by the Sam Mendes billing as director. Even though I had enjoyed Revolutionary Road and American Beauty despite their flaws, it was Shakespeare and the promise of the English language at its best, that had me get best seats in the house for Saturday night's performance at the Marigny. And so it was with great disappointment that I came away feeling as though I had been deceived by a story, just like the numerous lovers in As You Like It.

There were a number of strengths of the production, most notably the set and the ease with which it moved from ducal court to the rustic environs of the Forest of Arden. Both the set design and the way the actors used the forest were very creative. Some of the acting was outstanding, in particular, the Duke of Frederick who doubled as his brother, the banished Duke, was powerful. I would even go so far as to say Juliet Rylance as Rosalind, and Stephen Dillane as the melancholic Jacques were superb. However, their performances were so strong that they tipped the balance of the play when opposite the mediocrity of some of the other actors. Christian Camargo's Orlando was stiff and lacked passion, and from our best seats in the house, it was disconcerting to watch him as he refrained from looking at anyone he was talking to. Camargo might have a pretty face, but he has a very limited number of expressions to wear on that face. I also thought he lacked the emotional depth and drama of a Shakespearean lead, and was glad I didn't have to watch him play Hamlet as he has done in the past. Shakespeare's great leads are transformed, and so much of the magic of Shakeseare is in the way the characters shift through an array of often incompatible emotions. Camargo's two or three facial expressions (concern, love sick pain, puppy-dog adoration) and his rigid performance neither charmed nor convinced me. And when playing opposite Rylance as Rosalind I kept wondering why she would want to be with him. She got stronger and stronger as the play went along, while Camargo remained stiff. Thankfully, Rylance performed Rosalind/Ganymede's tricks, deceptions, manipulations and schemings with a glint in her eye and a naughty enthusiasm so convincing that being under her spell was a pleasurable place to be.

Dillane was also profound: his voice of irony in As You Like It was powerful and so dark that it cast Shakespeare's cold shadow over the lovers' frivolity and their constant changes of heart and identity. However, Dillane's strength was sometimes brushed aside, or overwhelmed by the time and energy given to the gaiety and celebration of love and marriage. Consequently, there were moments (particularly in the end) when I felt the irony and skepticism of Jacques words were no more than an aside. Shakespeare was deeply suspicious of the fickleness of the human heart, especially when it came to profess love. The doubling, the mistaken identity, the posing, the saying one thing and meaning another, all of which are laid very plain before the spectator are central to the significance of As You Like It. Indeed, darkness and skepticism are just as central to the play as are its charm and sparkle. And yet, I came away feeling as though the celebrations of love and marriage outshone and outlived the reminder that "All the World's a Stage, and all the men and women merely players."

The mixed cast was refreshing, and I didn't find the mélange of accents a problem. However, I was irritated by the acting: the gestures, facial expressions, movements of characters such as Celia (Michelle Beck) were perilously close to those of NYU undergraduates talking on a streetcorner in the East Village. Likewise, I had difficulty imagining Phoebe (Ashlie Atkinson) with her broad accent and untutored acting as anything but a woman on her way to work on the 7 train from Queens. I don't mind if Shakespeare is modernized and brought into the world of the audience, but I do mind when the actors don't interpret their characters to be so different from themselves.

One thing Mendes does very well is that he moves the play along nicely. Unlike other Shakespeare plays, As You Like it is not linear, taking time for new plot lines to be introduced, new characters to enter as sidelines to the main action, pausing for singing. And so I was impressed that at no point in over three and a half hours running time of the play did Mendes lose his audience. This is no small feat, particularly when the acting is not always persuasive and the balance and cohesion on stage is not always held.

All in all, Mendes makes a strong attempt to modernize Shakespeare, works with the form and rhythms of the language in new and exciting ways, as well as keeps the momentum going throughout, not to mention the visual apeal of the stage (which granted, is to be expected from a filmmaker). However, these qualities are not enough to get me back paying top dollar to see the second Mendes-in-Paris installment in the form of The Tempest at the Marigny this week.

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