by Hugh Hunter
Quintessence Theater in Mt. Airy has opened its new season with Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” and I did like its high energy and constant rollicking humor. At the same time I found the decision to use an all-male cast problematic.
In the story, Rosalind (Alexander Harvey) is exiled from a corrupt court. She runs off with her cousin Celia (Andrew Betz) to hide in the magical Arden forest. Rosalind falls in love with Orlando (Alan Brincks) and in the guise of a shepherd boy cleverly woos him.
I first read “As You Like It” as a teenager and remember feeling entranced by Rosalind, a woman so superior to all the men around her. She is more witty and wise, acts more decisively and does it all with loving forbearance.
In his program notes, I think director Alexander Burns is right in comparing Rosalind with Hamlet. Rosalind owns this play as much as Hamlet owns his. She is so compelling that other characters tend to become foils for her teasing wit, and she exposes smallness just by being herself.
But in the Quintessence production Rosalind simply does not stand out. Instead, it is the other boisterous characters and lovers in the Arden forest who jump out at you. Animated and full of song and dance, they give the show all of its pop and vitality (choreographer, Janet Pilla Marini; original music, David Cope). Even the song interludes during brief intermissions are charming and push the pace along.
It makes the play fun to watch, but the focus on Rosalind is lost. It is difficult for any actor to capture the womanliness of this amazing character. Alexander Harvey gives it a whirl, but it is supremely hard for a male actor to play this role without coming across as a man pretending to be a woman.
The other female characters are easier to play. Phoebe (Ashton Carter) and Audrey (Ryan Walter) are funny as tough country women. While Betz’s Celia is so adorable that both men and women in the audience want to get their hands on her. But Phoebe and Audrey are caricatures, and Celia is not burdened with Rosalind’s gravitas.
Rosalind too is in love, but her ardor is tempered with reason. When Orlando oozes that he would die for her love, she gives him a long answer that ends with this wonderfully ironic line: “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them but not for love.”
In our time, gender bender Shakespeare shows have become commonplace. (There have even been all female versions of “Hamlet.”) What matters is artistic outcome, and with this production Rosalind becomes something like an emcee at a wild party. Perhaps that is what director Burns intended to do. And while I did enjoy the frolic, I also wished I could have seen beloved Rosalind once again.
Quintessence is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. in the old Sedgwick Theater. “As You Like It” will run in repertory with “Richard II” through Nov 8. Reservations are available at 215-987-4450 or at the door.