Critics have been divided about As You Like It almost since the play’s premiere at the beginning of the 17th century. Some reviewers have judged it worthy of praise; others consider it one of Shakespeare’s lesser works. What virtually everyone — including this critic — agrees on is the ingenuity of Shakespeare’s verbal gymnastics and the appeal of the play’s central character, the highborn Rosalind.
Ask most people to name Shakespeare’s most memorable and important characters and you’re likely to hear Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Henry V, Richard II and Othello — all male and all found in Shakespeare's most famous tragedies and histories. But in many of the Bard’s plays — including most of the above — it is women who drive the action.
Consider Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Without her marriage to his father’s murderer, Hamlet would be far less tortured. Remove Lear’s daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia and that story becomes little more than the depiction of an old man’s physical and mental decline. Without the prodding of his mother, Coriolanus might well have refused to stand for Roman consul and thereby avoided his subsequent downfall.
Shakespeare's comedies have their fair share of key female characters as well. Taming of the Shrew depends on the rambunctious Kate to motivate the behavior of other characters, including that of her suitor Petruchio and her father Baptista. The “merry wives” of Windsor propel much of that play’s maneuverings and provide much of its humor. And As You Like It offers us the delightful Rosalind, as feisty and witty a heroine as any Shakespeare ever created. Without her, no one male would find lasting love or make peace with his foe.
The daughter of a banished duke and the innocent victim of his brother’s hatred, Rosalind seeks to educate everyone around her in the ways of love. In the process, she finds her own romantic happiness and resolves the enmities swirling around her.
When we first meet her, Rosalind is an elegant if giggly companion to her cousin Celia, the daughter of Duke Frederick. Frederick has usurped Rosalind's father (and his older brother), Duke Senior, who is now taking refuge in the Forest of Arden. When Frederick orders Rosalind out of his household, she convinces Celia to join in her flight to Arden forest, but not before Orlando, a young gentleman also banished by his brother, meets Rosalind and falls in love with her at first sight.
Once in the forest, Rosalind (disguised as a young man), Celia (posing as a poor woman), and the jester Touchstone meet up with a motley cast of characters including the lovesick shepherd Silvius, the uninterested object of his affections Phebe and the lusty, dimwitted country girl Audrey.
In the meantime, Orlando and his servant Adam have taken up residence in the forest with Duke Senior and the perpetually malcontent Jacques (“Jay-quees”). When Orlando comes across Rosalind in disguise, he doesn't recognize her.
Rosalind realizes she’s in love with Orlando but decides to play with his affections before revealing herself, promising to cure him of love if he woos her as though she were Rosalind.
In the manner of Shakespearean comedy, the rest of As You Like It is equal parts silliness and eloquence. The play contains some of the Bard’s most-quoted language, including Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” monologue, and Touchstone’s razor-sharp one-liners. (“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”)
David Pichette as the melancholic Jacques manages to keep the melodrama in check, despite constantly bemoaning man’s lot in life. His description of the “seven ages of man” is cynical but humane and his Jacques is more disappointed by the challenges of life than infuriated by them. Though Pichette has a commanding stage presence, he never overpowers the other actors.
The same is true of Darragh Kennan as Touchstone. Like Pichette, Kennan has perfect diction, allowing us to hear every word of Touchstone’s almost nonstop witticisms. Through Kennan the audience can fully appreciate how Shakespeare’s fools, when played well, elucidate truths that would otherwise elude us. A master of physical and verbal comedy, Kennan's monologue on “150 ways to kill a man” is a tour de force, on its own worth the price of admission.
In the end, however, As You Like It belongs to Rosalind and the actor who plays her has the ability to either bring the play alive or send it to an early death. Fortunately, Hana Lass makes an enchanting Rosalind. When she’s posing as the young male Ganymede, Lass acquires a swagger that both mocks and pays homage to the ebullience of young men and her high spirits keep the action and energy of the play moving forward.
Despite engaging performances from Lass, Pichette, Kennan and Seattle Shakes newcomer Donna Wood, who turns the almost throwaway role of Audrey into a comic jewel, As You Like It has serious flaws on any stage.
The first act is plodding and its dark tone misleading; this is, after all, a comedy. Although Jacques is given some of Shakespeare’s best lines, they seem to come out of nowhere, unrelated to the action or, for that matter, anything else in the play. The subplot love affairs (Silvius and Phebe, Celia and Oliver) are extraneous and even the rivalry between Duke Frederick and Duke Senior is so underwritten it hardly seems relevant.
There are also a number of issues with Seattle Shakespeare's production of the play. Although scenic designer Craig B. Wollam does a masterful job with Seattle Center Theater’s cramped space, the costumes are a mishmash from various centuries. It’s not unusual to dress Shakespearean plays in garb from another period, but director George Mount can’t seem to decide exactly when to place this one. The result is a jarring juxtaposition of 18th century powdered wigs and ladies’ gowns with 19th century menswear and 20th century work clothes. It’s almost as if Mount picked through Seattle Shakes’ costume shop, selecting whatever struck his fancy in color and style.
Despite these shortcomings, this As You Like It offers a diverting evening and a chance to hear some of the best drollery from the greatest playwright in our, and arguably any, language. With a top ticket price of $40, that’s not a bad deal.
If you go: As You Like It, Seattle Shakespeare Company at Seattle Center House Theatre, 305 Harrison St., through June 24. Tickets $20-$40, at the box office, by phone (206) 733-8222 or online at www.seattleshakespeare.com.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!