Classic Stage Company’s production of As You Like It is the latest act in Artistic Director John Doyle’s personal project to revivify the classics by whittling them down to their fundamentals. As with his CSC staging of John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures earlier this year, Doyle has slashed the text to its barest of bones and reduced scenic demands to a few plucky strokes. The approach neutered Pacific Overtures, but has made Shakespeare’s breeziest, most joyful romantic comedy even breezier.
It’s slow going at first, but that’s largely the Bard’s doing. Our heroes will flee to the idyllic Forest of Arden before long, but first they need an oppressive, bureaucratic state to escape from. There are affiliations to establish and lovers to maneuver into place as well. The company gathers around a steamer trunk to tell their story as living legend Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist, Requiem for a Dream), for now simply an observer, reads from a leather-bound edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.
Our heroine Rosalind (Hannah Cabell) has been allowed to remain in the kingdom even though her father, Duke Senior (Bob Stillman), has been banished by his brother, Duke Frederick (also Stilllman). When Frederick also exiles Rosalind, she and her cousin Celia (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Frederick’s daughter, escape to Arden dressed as men, with court fool Touchstone (Broadway legend André De Shields) in tow. Orlando (Kyle Scatliffe), after meeting Rosalind and falling for her instantly, as one does in Shakespeare, is forced to flee to the woods as well by his wicked older brother, Oliver (Noah Brody).
As anyone who has ever read a fairy tale knows, the woods are where everything worthwhile happens, and when the characters enter the forest, Doyle’s staging comes to life. The dozens of bulbous lamps he and lighting designer Mike Baldassari have strung throughout the auditorium, until now a dreary corporate off-white, start flashing in rainbow hues to welcome the players to Arden, where comic complications pile up as no less than four couples become entangled.
Burstyn joins the story as Jaques, a depressive forest dweller who has always been the pebble in the play’s shoe, offsetting the romantic shenanigans with melancholy cynicism. Though not a star role, it is an actorly favorite, not least because of the opportunity it presents to deliver the lines “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Burstyn has always been ill-at-ease in comedy (YouTube her 1980s sitcom with Elaine Stritch and Megan Mullally for proof), so Jaques is a perfect fit. As the 84-year-old Oscar-winner traces the “seven ages” of man, which culminate in “second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything,” this fusion of actor and role becomes almost painfully intimate, electric and tremendously moving.
The troupe is a true company, laughing at each other’s jokes and mistakes, encouraging and challenging one another. Actor-musician Leenya Rideout deserves special mention as the lovelorn Phoebe, but Bernstein is far and away the cast’s MVP. This great physical comedian’s Celia is the grounded, worldly anchor that keeps both Rosalind and the play itself from devolving into twee mush.
Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz is largely to thank for this as well. Though he works in a joke about the non-rhyme of “mind” and “Rosalind” (which is deliciously ironic coming from the man who paired “Oz” with “was” and “merrier” with ”posterior”), his pastoral tunes, especially the gorgeous setting for “Blow, blow, thou winter wind,” find him shaking off the bombast that has increasingly defined his output in the last couple of decades.
Doyle has excised almost everything not having to do directly with love in its various forms (romantic, erotic, filial, parental...), but the staging and actors’ diction are sharp and unadorned, so that even with gaps the storytelling is clear. Like the recent Hamlet at the Public, this is lucid Shakespeare of the type more often seen in the U.K. In fact, this is as close as you can get in New York City right now to being in Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank of the Thames, where there is little of the pretense, so dearly held in the U.S., that actors and audience exist in separate spheres. The performers interact with audience members, addressing them directly, grabbing their programs, or pulling them on stage to perform. It’s not challenging or innovative, but it’s warm, inviting, and utterly lovely.
As You Like It runs through Oct. 22 at Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call 212-677-4210 or visit classicstage.org.