So, I saw some things in the past week, starting with From the House of the Dead and, um, Hair, in New York last Saturday, and concluding with As You Like It at the Shakespeare Theatre Company here on Wednesday. While the latter two are somewhat off topic, I shall start with them first for reasons of relevance (lord knows when FTHOTD is coming back) and ease of review writing.
In the case of "As You Like It", this is owing to the incredible and vast suckage of this production. Now, I want to be clear that this really doesn't reflect on anyone in the truly excellent cast, which was filled with a great assortment of committed and skilled actors. No, this is exclusively a case of directorial misconduct in pursuit of the cheap laff.
The opening scene of this "As You Like It" involves a sort of faux old movie gimmick, which was somewhat inexplicable, but quickly forgotten. The first 40-50 minutes of the production is cast in a Puritan milieu, which is a perfectly good, neutral historical period for Shakespeare. The production is spare, but handsome, and we are clearly dealing with a set of actors committed to the task of inhabiting these mercurial characters and delivering Shakespeare's words with insight and passion.
And then, the characters flee to the forest to escape their various fates, and the whole thing becomes an opportunity for the Shakespeare Theatre Company to demonstrate how much worthless bang they can give you for your buck. Under the rubric of "escape to the forest" being synonymous with an "escape to the uncharted land of historic America", this production casts each successive set of scenes in a different period of American history. So for 15 minutes they are in the Civil War era South and they are all doing Gone with the Wind accents. Then they are all cowboys. Then they are on a steamboat. Then they are all silent movie actors. Any of the actual "drama" constructed during the first forty minutes is flushed right down the toilet in the service of this absurd gimmick that allows them to put the characters in different silly costumes and make them speak in different silly voices that elicits kneejerk laughter from the audience. This isn't a play. This is dress-up.
In the past year or so that I've been going to Shakespeare Theatre Company's productions, I have often been highly impressed. Their Twelfth Night, Dog in a Manger, and Ion last season were inventive, playful, and honest interpretations of classics that earned whatever gimmicks they indulged in. But this production, and the wretched production of "The Alchemist" I suffered through earlier this fall were both pure chicanery. Shakespeare Theatre Company, please stop this madness and start acting like you trust your audience to appreciate the classics on their own terms and not as vehicles for cheap and vulgar sitcom caricatures. Productions like this are an embarrassment.
Phew. OK. Hair and FTHOTD thoughts coming soon.