Shakespearing #48 by David Foley
Wit and Fresh Sorrow: As You Like It at CSC
When non-traditional casting is not the same as color-blind casting, things can get interesting. (I realize non-traditional casting is a bit of a misnomer since by now it’s quite traditional.) In John Doyle’s new production of As You Like It at Classic Stage Company, Orlando is black and his brother Oliver is white, and the production itself is set in what seems to be a version of the old South. When Orlando complains, “My father charged you in his will to give me good education: you have trained me like a peasant,” the lines take on painful contemporary significance. Doyle stages the fight between the two brothers more violently than is customary, turning race in America into a Cain and Abel rivalry, primal and recursive. When Oliver slanders Orlando as a “villainous contriver,” it becomes almost Ta-Nehisi Coatesian: the need for a criminal onto whom our own rapacity can be transposed.
Doyle seems to want us to feel the real costs of Shakespeare’s warring brothers and tyrannous fathers. Ellen Burstyn, she of the pellucid, emotive face, sits through much of the first part of the play with a volume of Shakespeare on her lap, following the events with deep and anxious empathy. For a while, you feel that the play has been brought to new life for you, made immediate and painful.
And then it kind of dies.
And it dies because in mining the play for fresh sorrow Doyle forgets how it works.
I wasn’t a fan of Doyle’s much-praised Sweeney Todd, which seemed great at mood and theatrics and not so good at making sense of the plot. Since Sweeney Todd gets its theatrical juice from melodrama, that seemed to me a not-inconsiderable flaw. You got to see Patti LuPone play a tuba, but still. I quite liked his Company, which I saw on video, though in retrospect it was maybe more at ease with emotion than wit, another not-inconsiderable flaw if you’re dealing with Sondheim.
Wit is the reason to do As You Like It, and wit is what dies once we get to Arden. Or rather wit, in the play itself, is what lifts us out of the dark currents of plot into the magic circle of Arden, where the evils and troubles of the world turn to play. That’s what wit does. It plays. It allows us to toss the serious things up in the air the better to see them.
Like Doyle, As You Like It is not big on plot, but there is a major turn. When Orlando arrives in the forest, hungry and desperate, he flourishes his sword at the exiled Duke, demanding food. The Duke responds with kindness and grace. We are no longer in the oppressive world of the court. We are in a world of gentility and play. Doyle will have none of it. Immediately, Orlando’s old servant Anna (Adam in the original) dies in his lap. We have not evaded the sorrowful world, even temporarily, by coming to the forest. One result is that the actor playing Orlando is forced to begin carving love poems on trees, his eyes still wet with tears.
This sets the tone for what follows: a Rosalind denuded of her wit. Her jousting with Orlando is played with smothered grief, her jests run through with the pain of her feelings for him. Her wit seems foreign to Doyle, as if he can’t imagine that lightness itself might be profound.
Earlier in the play, the usurper Duke charges in on Rosalind and Celia in a furious rage, banishing his niece. They fly apart in terror. It was one of those moments when I felt the thrill of Doyle’s method. A moment that we by now almost blank over had been made viscerally real. But now I wonder if this, too, is mistaken. It misunderstands the pleasures of story, which are also a form of play. The emotional charge smothers the pleasure of the scene, which taps into not living trauma but our joy at hearing what happens next.
Before the play, I was joking with my friend that British directors of American musicals sometimes seem to want us to take our native form more seriously. “Don’t you see,” their productions say, “Oklahoma! is dark!” And, of course, Oklahoma! is dark, and so is As You Like It. Most things that touch on the real world are. The power of wit is not that it makes us forget the dark stuff, but that it reimagines it for us. It suggests that though we may be stuck with it we’re not stuck in it. It imagines new freedom.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.