Wednesday night J and I saw As You Like It at BAM, part of the Bridge Project (a project which engages British and American stage actors and performing plays on both sides of the Atlantic) directed by Sam Mendes.

This is only my second performance at BAM (my first was the phenomenal A Streetcar Named Desire). And even though there was no Cate Blanchett to lead the cast, I thought it was fantastic.

The standouts for me were Juliet Rylance (Rosalind), Stephen Dillane (Jacques), and Ron Cephas Jones (Thomas the Westler); J also loved Touchstone, played by Thomas Sadoski.

While the performance was wonderful—I’ll get to that in a minute—I want to make a few comments about this particular play.

First, even though it’s a “comedy” in the sense that it ends with a wedding, it’s not really a comedy. It’s really not very funny until the second act, and there’s a lot of irrational animosity and violence, especially between the brothers. (Cousins, however, are so devoted to each other that they will abandon their parents to be together.) Duke Frederick inexplicably banishes his brother, the not-so-creatively-named Duke Senior. After the death of his father, Sir Roland de Boys’ oldest son Oliver disinherits his brother, Orlando, and then pays a wrestler to kill him. All of this seems rather bizarre—and not quite the so-staggeringly-evil-that-you-just-believe-it of genius characters like Iago. In one scene, when Duke Frederick demands Oliver to find his brother in the Forest of Arden, Mendes depicts Frederick’s goons torturing him, and Oliver has bloody scrapes across his body. This is a pretty accurate portrayal of both Duke Frederick’s anti-social behavior, and of what Oliver probably deserves (in the play, obviously not in real life). Orlando, describing his sad exile from both inheritance and kingdom, says “Thus must I from the smoke into the smother; / From tyrant Duke to tyrant brother.” The first half of the play is filled with savage injustices, so much so that I assumed that As You Like It must not be the comedy that I thought it was.

The second half of the play is a total reversal of tone and material. It takes place in the forest, where the Duke Senior (ingeniously portrayed by the same actor as his brother) has been living since his banishment. One of the characters compares them to Robin Hood, and I generally agree: they’re living in a cave; they hunt their food. Yet, this part of the play is far less clear than the first. Rosalind decides to dress like a man so that she and Celia can travel to the Forest of Arden safely, but once they’re there, and have found it to be a generally safe place, she stays in male garb. Why? Furthermore, why doesn’t she reveal her identity to her father whom she has met on various occasions during their stay in the woods? Why does she lead Orlando to believe that she’s a boy, even after he has posted love poems on every tree in the forest? And—not to give it away—but the ending is a true deus ex machina: Duke Senior gets his kingdom back only because his brother has experienced a spontaneous religious conversion.

Seriously, Will? Is that the best you can come up with?

My only answer can be that Shakespeare was a little off his game. Gersh Kuntzman at the Brooklyn Paper calls As You Like It “one of the Bard’s most-performed, but certainly not best, plays”:

One of Shakespeare’s so-called “pastoral comedies,” “As You Like It” is actually best known for all the cross-dressing in a plot that has more gender bending than a night at Lucky Cheng’s.

Of course, while the end was a happy quadruple marriage, I felt sorry for the ever-loyal Celia. Not only is she stuck with a baddy of a father, but she then falls in love with Oliver—who, despite his gratitude to his brother for saving him from a lion, was in fact in the forest on a quest to hunt down Orlando. So, even though Oliver is redeemed, I still wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw a stick. Good luck with that, Celia.

Despite these flaws in the writing, as usual, he BAM performance was very well done. And it’s clear that Mendes knows not only how to direct his actors, but also how to construct a visually stunning stage. In the last minutes of the play, during Rosalind’s epilogue, she reaches up to a nearby tree branch and pulls down one of Orlando’s posted poems, and then bows her farewell. Beautiful.

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Note: Next month the same cast is going to perform the second half of this season’s Bridge Project—The Tempest—a play that I teach in my classes every semester. Wouldn’t it be great if I had the money to send my students to see it?

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If you’re in the NYC area, follow @BAM_Brooklyn. Last week they offered tickets for $18.75 exclusively on Twitter!

Note: Next month the same cast is going to perform the second half of this season’s Bridge Project—The Tempest—a play that I teach in my classes every semester. Wouldn’t it be great if I had the money to send my students to see it?

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