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As who likes it? BAM’s Bard comedy is a true tragedy

The Brooklyn Paper

And they call “As You Like It” a comedy?

Shakespeare’s cross-dressing pastoral frolic has been known to churn up some mirth on occasion, but the version of the Bard’s wordiest play at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater is positively dreadful.

As with all of BAM’s “Bridge Project” productions — a cross-Atlantic collaboration overseen by none other than Kevin Spacey — the fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.

We want to be entertained, and the actors seem committed to the task. But Shakespeare and director Sam Mendes have other ideas.

The action of the play starts out well enough. Mendes does a good job in making sure that all of the various alliances and betrayals are clear and concise. In short, Duke Frederick has exiled his brother, Duke Senior, to the Forest of Arden, yet has allowed Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, to remain at court, where she meets Orlando, a visiting nobleman.

Yet Frederick is bitter and eventually banishes both Rosalind (a radiant Juliet Rylance) out of fear that she will try to reclaim her father’s throne, and Orlando (Christian Camargo), whose father was a friend of the exiled duke.

Obviously, the star-crossed lovers are destined to meet again and live happily ever after.

So why does it have to take so long?

Perhaps nothing can save this torpid production from the disaster that is the second act. It’s not so much that the last half of the play is longer than the first. And it’s not so much that so little actual action happens in the forest, where Rosalind, hoping to remain anonymous, has taken on the identity of a young nobleman.

The main problem is simply that Mendes doesn’t get enough laughs from the cross-dressing farce of Rosalind — now called Ganymede — doling out romantic advice to everyone, even Orlando. Some of the fault lies with Camargo, a well-known TV actor, whose Orlando is mournful and complacent instead of frothy and lustful.

But most of the fault lies with Shakespeare himself. The second act of “As You Like It” is virtually impossible to enliven (despite Tom Piper’s wondrous set and Paul Pyant’s warm lighting). All of the action takes place in the forest, where a revolving door of characters enter, perform their little set pieces, and exit. Unlike the first act, which featured a well-staged wrestling match and some scenery-chewing by Duke Frederick, the second act just lays there.

Mendes might have gotten some help from the usually excellent British actor Stephen Dillane, who plays the melancholy Jacques, but Dillane is clearly phoning it in. Actually, that’s unfair — dialing a phone requires a bit more effort than what Dillane is offering on stage at the Harvey. He doesn’t even get a laugh from the play’s most-famous “All the world’s a stage” speech. Inexcusable!

Perhaps Mendes asked for such sleepwalking. Indeed, in the hands of this director (best known for the film “American Beauty”), even the four-couple wedding that ends the play is performed with about as much mirth as a funeral. And Mendes also botches the play’s very last moment, when the Jacques ponders a religious conversion as a way out of his sadness. This is supposed to be great Shakespearean farce — “The duke hath put on a religious life, and thrown into neglect the pompous court?” he asks — but Mendes has Dillane play it earnestly.

Unfortunately, Rylance’s effervescence can’t save this play. She is a wonder to behold in a play that is not worthy of her gifts.

“As You Like It” at the BAM Harvey Theater [651 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in Fort Greene, (718) 636-4100], Now through March 13.

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Reader Feedback

jmarsh from Boston says:
This is the same paper that didn't like the play before it opened.
Jan. 22, 2010, 10:50 am
Penelope from Bay Ridge says:
That darn Shakespeare. Couldn't write his way out of a malmsy butt. A pity he didn't have this reviewer to explain to him that Jacques' [sic] famous speech should "get a laugh."
Jan. 27, 2010, 12:33 pm

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