by Ben Ellentuck
When I entered the BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) Harvey Theater, where As You Like It is playing, I was immediately struck. The theater is absolutely enormous. It also looks like it’s about to collapse. Old columns just barely hold up the balcony. The walls and ceiling are crumbling: I would not have been entirely surprised if a piece of debris had fallen on me. Also—a warning—the seats are very flat and not ideal for sitting in for long periods of time. And yet, the space, especially in combination with the set, is breathtaking.
Ah, the set! The set designer has hit a home run, beautifully capturing the essence of the forest, where most of the action takes place. The trees are like telephone poles, the back wall like an infinitely tall prison barrier; first snow on the ground, then what looks like wheat—the whole set up is weird and wonderful. The lighting design, too, is great; there is a very nice chemistry between the lighting and the set that results in some very cool effects throughout the performance.
Ah…the performance. Is it a bad sign that I enjoyed looking at the set more than at the performers?
As You Like It is a comedy by William Shakespeare (remember him?). As such, you can be sure that there will be a woman (Rosalind) dressing like a man, lovers (her and a guy named Orlando, among others), fools, nobility, singing and general merriment, and of course many happy marriages at the end (As You Like It features a quadruple marriage). Yes, of course there is a plot, but it’s much too complicated to write here. (The program attempts a synopsis that is so confusing I almost didn’t bother to pay attention at all—but don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get the basics…by intermission.)
Sure, there are the famous speeches—“all the world’s a stage,” among others—that can’t possibly go wrong. There are the gags that are funny no matter what. There are some moments that inevitably work—the writing is just that good. But in this production, at least for me, these were the only moments that I really enjoyed.
The production, directed by Sam Mendes (he directed American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, among other movies—along with many other plays), is not played as a comedy—or at least it isn’t particularly funny. (But then again I didn’t find American Beauty particularly funny, either.) As a result, I didn’t really have that much fun watching the actors speak—and they speak quite a bit; the production is three hours long.
Additionally, Mendes sprinkles in a bunch of conceptual elements—some modern costumes here, some English accents there, some color-blind casting, a lot of the cast playing multiple roles—that feel more like afterthoughts than anything else. They’re never really fleshed out, and I didn’t feel like I “got” what Mendes was going for in the end—but perhaps I’m just stupidly inattentive. I don’t know. Maybe it was my flat seat, after all.
HOW TO SEE THE SHOW: $10 student rush tickets • BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn