Sunday, February 6, 2011

'AS YOU LIKE IT'? NOT SO MUCH -- 'As You Like It' at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

How would you like your Shakespeare?
Cliché with a side of yawn? Or perhaps Pretentious stuffed with some hot, steaming Concept?
Ah yes, of course - Drinks first. I recommend the Coy-smile-tini.
Enjoy your time at The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.

I'm sorry. I couldn't resist...

The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier is currently serving up a detestable, cookie cutter production of Shakespeare's As You Like it, ensnaring audiences with three long hours of lame giggles and wishy-washy indecisiveness.

WARNING: If you purchase a ticket to As You Like It with the intention of enjoying a play by William Shakespeare, you will fail in this effort. You might enjoy something, but I can assuredly guarantee you that it will not originate from the text of the play.

But is there really anything wrong with that?

No. Absolutely not.

Many, many entertaining and poignant adaptations of Shakespeare's plays exist that transfer primary focus from the text to some other element in order to tell a specific story. No prob.
However, Chicago Shakespeare's website misleadingly states that "[they] are known for [their] devotion to preserving the integrity of Shakespeare’s language, while at the same time making the work clear and understandable to a modern American audience."

Can anyone tell me what that even means?

If one preserves the "integrity of Shakespeare's language," the play should be inherently understandable to anyone who speaks English. It is only when a condescending effort is made to pander the text to a "modern American audience" that clarity is lost. Such is the case with As You Like It.

Director, Chicago native Gary Griffin, has achieved phenomenal international success, most notably with his stagings of The Color Purple (Broadway/Tour), Pacific Overtures (Chicago/London), and West Side Story (Stratford Festival) - a production that was far superior to the simultaneously running Broadway revival.
Yes, Griffin is a proven director, but if you review his metaphorical highlight reel, you'll be hard-pressed not to find someone a' singin' and a' dancin. Although he is employed by high-profile Shakespearean institutions like Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and The Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Griffin almost always directs the musical.

Don't worry. I hear all of you seasoned Chicago theatre veterans out there yelling

"Hold the phone! I saw Griffin's Amadeus in 2008!"

I did too. And Chicago Shakespeare's production was lovely. But remember, Amadeus is play driven by music.

In an interview in the program, Griffin states that As You Like It has been called Shakespeare's most musical play" and that " the musical heart and soul of the piece and the music is her soul". That is all well and good, but here music is used as a crutch - a means of propping up a play that the creative team feels cannot stand on its own. I'm saying that it can, and it wants to.

The music, while well-sung, is also noticeably out-of-place. The score is reminiscent of an Anime cartoon credit sequence. Lone, slow, staccato piano music conjuring up images of pastoral hills...and goats.

Speaking of goats (No, Edward Albee. You can put your ego away. This has nothing to do with you. [And I can put my own ego away. Like Edward Albee would ever read this]) , the sound design is packed with on-the-nose animal noises and nondescript nature sounds. Coupled with a set whose major element is a Tim Burton-esque tree of mangled boards and a straight forward Regency Era costume design (think Jane Austen), there is ample confusion abound.

And this confusion does nothing to help the actors.
I have not brought up acting yet because there is not much to say. Understudy Steve Wojtas as Orlando and Kate Fry as Rosalind are very endearing, but that is the highest praise I can give. Ross Lehman's Jaques, in an unintentional nod to his "All the world's a stage..." speech, chews the scenery like a teething baby. For the most part, they are a clearly competent group of actors placed into an extremely misguided production - forced into doing their best "Shakespeare Voices" ...You know what I mean.

There is very little to enjoy about this soulless production. At times it truly seems as if a group of equity actors were abducted and tricked into performing in an oddly well-funded community theatre. As You Like It is up there with A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing in terms of hilarious comedies. It is an extremely funny play, but, not so much.

So my Shakespearean rant aside, at $70 a ticket, you are being charged an extraordinary amount of money to be cheated of the experience you deserve: a light-hearted, whimsical comedy filled with twists and turns. The kind of story that we yearn for. Instead, all you get is a chair and an illusion of cultural fulfillment.

You can get the same thing for free by tuning into 'Barefoot Contessa' Saturdays at Noon on the Food Network.