I grew bored and irritated with Georgia Shakespeare a few years ago - the same actors recycling roles and artistic director Richard Garner's propensity for jazzing up or severely altering plays. I vowed to not return after a "Hamlet" production in which Polonius' "neither a borrower nor a lender be" speech was cut.
But "As You Like It" is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, so I decided on a warm Sunday afternoon to head to Oglethorpe University for Georgia Shakespeare's production of Shakespeare's comedy, which satirizes the pastoral genre already shopworn in his time while reinventing it. Although local reviewers had been lukewarm, I was drawn by the pleasure of seeing the great Chris Kayser playing the odd character Jacques, who gives the "All the World's a Stage" speech, which fuses in my mind with Macbeth's "Sound and the Fury" soliloquy.
The performance - the company's final one of the play's run - was fine, although it mainly represented how unwieldy "As You Like It" is. I'd seen a production a few years ago at the New American Shakespeare Tavern in downtown Atlanta, which I recalled as better integrated. The Georgia Shakespeare production struck me as disjointed, with long stretches of secondary characters making me wish we could get back to the main action of Rosalind/Gandymede seeking her lover Orlando. The philosophical clown/fool Touchstone takes a up a lot of the play's oxygen - the role was orginally played by two of Shakespeare's favorite actors, Richard Armin and William Kempe, whom Will always gave meaty roles. Many of the jokes are no longer funny, and director Garner's attempts to tart them up with the lamest aspects of contemporary humor fell flat.
Two young women gave a delightful lift harmonizing Shakespeare's songs as one strummed an acoustic guitar - they sounded like the Indigo Girls in their prime. Tiresome, however, was the two forest rustics - one of whom could be cut without much loss - portrayed as Southern hillbillies. Are demeaning stereotypes allowed when poor white people are targeted?
Main star Courtney Patterson as Rosalind took the afternoon off - it was the production's last performance, so I suppose they wanted to give understudy Margaret Livsey a turn in the lights. Livsey was fine, but I missed Patterson. Kayser stood out as Jacques, and the production knitted together all the disparate parts at the end, salvaging the show with a rousing finish in which Shakespeare gives one of his most joyous testaments to love and marriage. In his tragedies, love doesn't turn out so well, but here it's humanity's greatest undertaking.
As the characters came together on stage at the finale, I was struck by how Shakespeare's universal mind still challenges companies to the limit. How amusing that Shakespeare resolves the play with a trick that the worst TV sitcom hack would blush to try. All of a sudden, word comes that the evil duke has undergone a conversion, and all is now peace and light.
The fool/wise man Touchstone gives some of Shakespeare's deepest reflections on art and poetry: the line "the truest poetry is the most feigning" brought further musings from W.H. Auden. Other of Touchtone's philosophical ramblings had my mind wondering how the Braves were doing against the Phillies.
All in all, the performance reassured me about Georgia Shakespeare. Despite a few ill-advised attempts to make the play "relevant," it survived pretty much intact. But just when I was seeing Georgia Shakespeare in a better light, I realized that one of my favorite lines had been cut "understanding strikes a man more dead that a great reckoning in a little room." Guess the reference to Christopher Marlowe was considered too much of an inside joke.