SHAKESPEARE & CO.’s “AS YOU LIKE IT” WAS AS PLANET LIKES IT … plus … BOTCHED FIREWORKS? GET OVER IT! COLONIALS OFFER A GREAT PRODUCT AT A GREATER PRICE … and … LEARN ABOUT AMERICA’S BIGGEST TEACHING SCANDAL (NO, IT ISN’T IN PITTSFIELD, AT LEAST THAT WE KNOW OF)
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI Arts
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, WED., July 6, 2011, 1st ADD) — Shakespeare & Company’s current production of the Bard’s farce comedy, “As You Like It,” drives home a point about Will that, while once startlingly original, has, through repetition stemming from its truth, become a cliché. The point? Shakespeare “is our contemporary.”
Years ago, Polish critic Jan Kott wrote a book that argued as much, and the high brows accepted the eccentric observation of the disproportionately influential book. Most didn’t get the satiric nature of Kott’s work. The Polish author was actually writing a withering political critique of Soviet totalitarianism.
Nonetheless, Kott’s “license” gave directors and production designers ever since the freedom to mess with Shakespeare as they like it, including the old stand-by of setting his plays in modern times. Not only does this device save on costumes and sets, it eliminates “the Elizabethan barrier” that many of today’s audiences trip over. In he hands of anything less than an able director, it’s the formula for disaster. Fortunately, Shakespeare and Company’s artistic director is a more than able director.
Into the ‘Way Ahead Machine’
“As You Like It” director Simotes puts “As You Like It” in Mr. Peabody’s “Way Ahead Machine.” He brings Rosalind, Orlando, and all the others from the early 17th century into the Paris, ca. 1920. Simotes says he chose Paris of the Roaring Twenties “to recreate the whirlwind, dizzying feeling of falling in love.” Fair enough, but the setting and time seem arbitrary considering that in this production, nothing changes but the costumes, a few novelty songs, and the Monopoly-like “house and hotel” of the sparse set. In others words, played just as expertly, the farcical nature of “As You Like It” would have done well in most any other place and time.
What sets this production apart isn’t Simotes’ choice of 1920 Paris but — you might want to sit down for this — letting the language of Shakespeare be the Star of First Magnitude. The remainder, which includes all of the ensemble cast, are but mere players, with their entrances and exits … except for the redoubtable Jonathan Epstein, of course.
Less is More, i.e., Set, Lighting, and Sound Get Out of the Way
In a case where less is more, the set, light, and sound designers have little to do. Sets are bare, except for the small slate-gray tokens depicting the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de’ Triumph, and other Paris landmarks — that and a few stylistic branches supposed to represent the Forest of Arden.
The “Monopoly” tokens serve as set pieces and provide function as dollies and seats for crew and cast. Lighting dims and brightens appropriately, and that’s about it. Sound goes for mood and cheap laughs. It would have been a perfect opportunity for apprentices to do sets, lights, and sound, for all that Simotes requires. This isn’t a knock. It’s great praise, since the decision not only saves on the budget but also lets Shakespeare’s language carry the play (good acting assumed).
The sparseness of production values forces the play to hang on every one of Shakespeare’s words, almost as a kind of life-support. Given the talent of this cast, this is not a hanging in effigy but more the hanging of a great work of art on a gallery wall.
Jonny Epstein Runs Away with It as Touchstone
Show stealer of “As You Like It” is the fabulous Jonathan Epstein as the fool Touchstone. Epstein’s voice makes each word sound with seasoning, inflections perfect, pauses in exactly the right places, and diction crisp so that understanding the ratt-ta-tatt Elizabethan words becomes a breeze. Epstein exudes ownership of the role in a way that rises to bravado worthy of “Bravo!”
Unfortunately, in the only false note of casting, the overmatched Jennie Jadow can’t keep up as Touchstone’s lover, Audrey. True, Audrey is a ditz, but lacking Epstein’s brilliant over- and under-play, Jadow tries to over-emote. She flops didismally, an adverb made necessary because some “flops” work to the point of intentionality; not this one, though. If this were a film, Jadow would mercifully end up on the cutting room floor. Ah, but it’s not a film, and the audience has to endure.
Fortunately, Epstein’s fellow veterans Josh Aaron McCabe (Oliver, Orlando’s murderous brother), Jonathan Kroy (Corin), Tod Randolph (Jaques) Johnny Lee Davenport (Duke Frederick), and Malcolm Ingram (Adam) rise to Epstein’s level. The bar is set high, and they clear it. Ingram may not have a lot to do, but he’s worth watching. Every moment he’s on stage, even peripherally without anything to say or do, he captures Adam’s creaky, kind-hearted benevolence. Ingram becomes ancient. It’s a lesson for anyone who appreciates acting and realizes the importance for bit players to stay in character.
Roach, Janson ‘Lead’ the Way: Doogie Howser Falls in Love with Rocket J. Squirrel
The two youthful leads — Tony Roach as Orlando and Merrit Janson as Rosalind/Ganymede — capture perfectly the innocence of the two star-struck lovers. Roach has a Doogie Howser kind of naïvete, Janson a Rocket J. Squirrel type of enthusiasm.
One can forgive the greatest structural flaw of Shakespeare’s plot, namely, that Rosalind can get away with posing as a man in the mysterious forest of Arden. It’s in the same category of the Superman/Clark Kent switch. No one would be fooled, but we accept it as a plot device, awkward as it may be. Roach and Janson emit the energy of youth and do a capital job with Shakespeare’s lines. Kelley Curran as Celia, Rosalind’s companion, doesn’t slip as second banana and foil. Equiano Mosieri brings command to his part of LeBeau.
In the end, of course, all the lovers live happily ever after and then some, as they have been since the first performance of the play on Dec. 2, 1603. Orlando-Rosalind, a repentant and reconciled Oliver-Celia, Touchstone-Audrey, and Silvius (Ryan Winkles)-Phoebe (Dana Harrison): each ties the knot without it becoming Gordian.
Shakespeare derived “As You Like It” from Thomas Lodge’s “Rosalynde” (pub. 1590), which Lodge cobbled from the pseudo-Chaucerian “Tale of Gamelyn.” Shakespeare apparently loved the theme of contrast: the chicanery and intrigue of the court with the innocence and goodness of the country. Connivery and treachery vs. purity and rectitude provide a great framework for a morality tale. The farce-like fun prevents it from getting syrupy, which is why this play has never primarily been about the foibles and pitfalls of love. Simotes seems to “get” this distinction.
The production was, in the end, As We Like It.
“AS YOU LIKE IT” CONTINUES AT SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY’S FOUNDERS’ MAINSTAGE THROUGH SEPT. 4. FOR TICKETS AND MORE INFORMATION, GO TO www.shakespeare.org.
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, WEDNESDAY, JULY 6, 2011) — Never have so many been so riled by so little.
THE PLANET refers to the botched fireworks at Beloved Wahconah Park following the conclusion of the best game of the year (1-0, Colonials, on a Johnny Welch home run) in front of the year’s biggest crowd (4,0009). The pyrotechnics started as usual, but after less than 10 minutes, it ended — just like that. Nothing.
No Announcement was the Big Mistake
The crowd knew something went wrong, but it didn’t know what. That’s when the team made its one and only mistake in the fiacso: It did not make an announcement informing the thousands of people that the show had to stop because of an electrical malfunction that wasn’t the team’s fault. Instead, the PA announcer came on, thanked the crowd for coming, and bid them all good night, pretending everything was OK and that the show had been executed in its fullness. HUGE mistake, because it then led to rumors.
Rumor Mill Grinds Exceedingly Well
The exiting crowd noticed the flashing blue lights from Pittsfield police. The cops were there for traffic control, but some fans assumed there had been an accident. Then, coincidentally, a Medi-Vac life rescue helicopter was spotted at the same time. People assumed one of the fireworks’ crew had been injured or killed. It took off from there.
So here we are, two days after, and it’s time to put the matter to rest. As many have wisely said (and some have posted at this website), they’re just fireworks. They’re not a meal for a starving man or the stay of execution for a man on death row. People missed a lot of color and noise, signifying nothing.
What’s more important to the larger scheme of things, and to the quality of life in the city of Pittsfield, is how much of a crowd attends tomorrow night’s game as BWP. THE PLANET has the feeling that tomorrow night’s game will be THE barometer game of the year. A crow of 1,000 or more will bode well for the future of professional baseball in Pittsfield. If it’s 800 or less, Katie, bar the door.
Colonials Offer Best Bargain in Berkshire County in the High Months of Cultural July and Entertainment August
Buddy Lewis, the hard-working Colonials staff, and the city of Pittsfield (including the fabulous work of Greg Yon and the Parks Maintenance staff, including Vinny Barbarrotta and Tony Stracuzzi) have pulled out all stops. Mistakes have been made, but the product is first rate: Double A quality baseball, the Can-Am League, what has to be the best food in all of minor league baseball, a stadium that most any other city would love to have for its history and its genuine “throw-back character, the fact that BWP has NEVER looked or played better, the cost-vs-value ratio, the family-friendly nature of the outing, the best manager of the league in Jaime Keefe, the league’s top home run hitter in Johnny Welch, great starting pitching, and much more. [FULL DISCLOSURE: YES, THE PLANET ACTS IN A CONSULTING AND ADVISORY CAPACITY TO THE TEAM].
THE PLANET urges all to attend Thursday night and judge the product for yourselves.
Objective Testing gone Amok … Is It Happening in Pittsfield??
Briefly, standardized testing has gone to seed.
In Massachusetts, the legislature passed the Ed Reform Act in 1993 because both colleges and the private sector were alarmed at how stunningly ill-prepared high school students were after completing 12 years of education. They came out with their sheepskins as dumb as dirt.
Reform including objective testing as a rational, non-emotional evaluation tool. THE PLANET heartily supported the concept, because it works.
Then the teachers unions got involved, and disaster ensued. Administrators panicked. In essence, local school districts, including Pittsfield, did not institute the required curriculum reform. When MCAS arrived in its watered down version, it was doomed to fail. Today, MCAS is a waste and actually deters quality in performance, which the unions knew would happen. They were opposed to the measure of intelligent reform and thus created the monster that they falsely claimed was there from the start.
This news item from the Christian Science Monitor shows what happens when professional educators pervert a good idea:
America’s biggest teacher and principal cheating scandal unfolds in Atlanta