SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a popular theory that Shakespeare wrote As You Like It using elements he knew would be a hit with his audiences, and that it maybe wasn’t one of his more successful shows. He even finishes the show with a speech from Rosalind about the mixed reception the play might have. And though the University of Utah’s current production has a great deal of strengths, I must say that I didn’t like it.
The inconsistency in apparel was a major problem for me in this play. Costuming might not seem like a big deal, but attire can provide useful information to the audience, and without that firm grounding in time, character, or place, I found myself constantly distracted from the action of the play. Costume designer Madeline Ussery used, for example, a tux with tails for Duke Frederick, a yellow plaid shirt and slacks for Orlando, wrestlers in spandex, an ensemble member in overall shorts, Rosalind with a small hoop earring, and something resembling Tweedle-Dee or Tweedle-Dum for Touchstone (not while in his post as the court fool, mind you, but only as a disguise in the forest). Some of the shows costumes were great on their own, like the apparel for the shepherd Corin, but it was the seeming randomness of the entire collection that distracted me. And the last straw for me was the inexplicable rationale behind Rosalind’s disguise not disguising her in any way. The change between Rosalind at court and her impersonation of a man in the forest should have been greater. As an audience member, how am I supposed to believe that Orlando can’t recognize the woman he loves? Make it easier for me to suspend my disbelief, please.
I was pleased, though, with Sandra Shotwell,’s direction, which kept things flowing smoothly from scene to scene. The thrust stage helped with fluidity, as it gave Shotwell multiple paths for entrances and exits. Shotwell sort of painted the stage with her actors as her brush. An example was placing Duke Frederick (played by Rachel Intrator) above audience level to give her the stature to match her powerful voice, as she intimidated her enemies. The moment when Shotwell staged Celia below the duke, while leaving Rosalind alone center stage, heightened the drastic change in the Duke’s tone as she spoke to each. I also liked the circular arrangement of actors when Rosalind/Ganymede commits each lover to the upcoming mass wedding; she speaks to each character and as they respond each takes a step forward and the spiral rotates itself.
The sound design enhanced and controlled the emotional tone of this production, a fact which was obvious from the beginning. The show opened with actors happily and casually taking the stage, a few playing stringed instruments and some singing. Then another group rushed onstage shouting with a harsh percussive accompaniment. This sequence was the backstory of Duke Frederick banishing his brother, I realized, and it introduced the effect that music and sound would have on the play. I’m not sure whether to give more praise to the director herself or to Christian Stringham, the sound designer. Daniel Amsel (as Amiens) was the musical consistency throughout, as he played and sang, adding sweetness and humor to each of his scenes, culminating in an amusing falsetto solo as Hymen, the god of marriage.
There was something missing in the Rosalind and Orlando relationship. Jasmin Peterson and Torin Deen Scofield were both talented actors, but their bond felt shallow, and their chemistry was inconsistent and flat. Their conversations didn’t have enough unspoken layers or undertones of romance to make them seem believable. There was no visible hesitation from Scofield as he pretended to woo Ganymede/Rosalind, and there seemed to be no threat of Rosalind’s physical attraction threatening her charade as a man. And there was never a clear moment when Orlando finally uncovered the ruse.
Cody V. Thompson was a despicable Oliver, who tries to eliminate his brother Orlando via Charles the Wrestler (played by Grey Carver). The fight between the brothers was impressive and truly highlighted their differences. Though she stumbled over her lines a few times, Jessica L. Montgomery’s Celia was ultimately a great comedic partner to Peterson’s Rosalind. When she recounts her interaction with Orlando—“I found him under a tree like a dropped acorn,” she says, as she lays herself attractively on the stage—the back-and-forth between the two actresses was hilarious. The bulk of the cast was amusing, easy to understand, and memorable.
Kathryn Mungin impressed me in her portrayal of Jacques. She was a good storyteller and the “All the world’s a stage” monologue had a great deal of emotion in it, like she was remembering specific people in her life. That scene was even more beautiful with the addition of a spotlight on Mungin with the other actors more dimly lit in blue/green with silhouettes of tree branches. It felt like a quiet moment around a campfire and the lights got warmer and warmer by the end of the scene. That great moment was designed by David Anthony and Ken De Carolis.
As Shakespeare sets up the dominoes in his comedies and prepares for that big reveal at the end, a director has to be careful not to lose the audience or let the characters run around aimlessly. Somewhere in the last third of this particular production everything began to feel tedious. I became impatient with Jacques’ interruptions and Rosalind’s silly plans. When Orlando started playing tag, Celia sat on the floor to color with crayons, and the common Audrey reaches into her blouse to arrange her cleavage, I felt more than ready for the play to end. The aimlessness, the lack of chemistry in the forest, and the chaos of the costumes finally added up to make the play fall short of the whimsical feel of most of Shakespeare’s comedies.
Despite its flaws, the cast is talented enough that that this production would be entertaining for some people. I may have come with overly high expectations, which left me disappointed in the end. But others may be charmed by this popular story.