Showed Up: Sam Mendes Does 'The Tempest' and 'As You Like It' at BAM

by Richard Beck

No, As YOU Like It

The second of three seasons of The Bridge Project, a partnership of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Old Vic and Neal Street, is closing at BAM this week. Last year, Sam Mendes staged The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard here; this year it’s The Tempest and As You Like It. Two of those plays are romances, involving love but also magic, sadness, and personal redemption. One, written as a comedy, is regularly performed as a tragedy, which means that audiences see it as a little of both. As You Like It is a straightforward comedy, but here Mendes has added a torture scene, which isn’t very funny.

These kinds of emotional middle grounds are characteristic of Mendes, who works harder at creating moods than at anything else. He has his own take on whatever the emotion is that has equal parts sadness and hope-it’s what you get at the end of a Grey’s Anatomy episode or an Allstate commercial (Are you in good hands? I want to be. I think I am?! [cries]). Five films in, his career’s iconic moment is still American Beauty’s Wes Bentley (late of Ghost Rider) filming the garbage bag swirling around. He has made two movies about how the suburbs are suffocating. So: this is not exactly an ideas guy.

Both of this year’s productions can be boring, but both are also lots of fun to watch. BAM’s Harvey Theater is attractively dilapidated, and Tom Piper’s sets and Catherine Zuber’s costumes match: wood, nice muted color palettes, lots of “exposed” stuff. It’s a semi-industrialized version of shabby chic, AKA what “Brooklyn” looks like. There’s also some great acting by both Brits and Americans (transatlanticism being the point of the Bridge Project). If you have twenty bucks and a free evening, it would be a good idea to go see one. Here’s how you might choose.

As You Like It is a satire on the pastoral, a genre that isn’t doing too well these days outside of Thomas Kinkade paintings. Its plot is: a bunch of courtiers head into the forest of Arden, where they meet, make fun of and then sometimes fall in love with simple folk. Today we still more or less understand the pastoral’s broader outlines-simpler times, trees, unsophisticated honesty-but many of the specifics have been forgotten. So you get the feeling, as you watch people banter, that you’re missing things. I mean the play is four hundred years old, after all.

Fortunately you can turn to Rosalind for guidance, because she gets everything. Rosalind, played by Juliet Rylance (who is really good), is the kind of genius-level intelligent character that people who aren’t Shakespeare don’t write very often. There’s a really well-directed moment early on where Touchstone the clown is playing word games with Rosalind and her best friend Celia (if you are anti-pun, you should see another play, and probably steer clear of Shakespeare or fun in general). Touchstone is quick, but Rosalind is quicker, and finishes one of his riddles for him, while Celia looks on blankly.

Rosalind then meets Orlando, who is played by Rylance’s real-life husband Christian Camargo. They fall immediately and awkwardly in love, and then each is separately forced to leave Duke Frederick’s kingdom. When they meet again in Arden, Orlando is hanging his terrible love poems all over the place, on trees, and Rosalind is disguised as a man.

Now at this point what’s supposed to happen is some A-level onstage flirting. Rosalind is in love, but she’s smart enough to be suspicious of having gone head over heels so quickly, and she also knows that Orlando is a little immature (“From the east to western Ind / No jewel is like Rosalind,” is how one of his tree-poems starts, which seems like a pretty obvious call for concern). So, disguised as Ganymede, she tells Orlando that she will help him snap out of his infatuation. All he has to do is visit her/him every day, pretend that she/he is Rosalind, and try to woo her. This is an awesome plan.

But Carmago ruins things by playing it as though Orlando really can’t see the woman he loves underneath the summery blazer and straw fedora. So instead of insane sparks flying all over the place, we get Orlando being genuinely confused about why this short guy in the forest is so into the little role-play they have going. After they kiss, Carmago gets embarrassed at having done a gay thing. I’m not going to quote every line of Orlando’s that is obviously flirting, but they are everywhere. It seems impossible to me that Rosalind would fall for someone who was actually that dumb. (As a suitor, Orlando gets especially upstaged by the peasant Silvius, who is played by Aaron Krohn. He tells the woman he loves — who can’t stand him, by the way — that he will marry her “though to have her and death were one thing.” That, it seems to me, is how you do it.)

The other best thing about As You Like It is the melancholic Jacques (that’s “Jay-kwees”). He’s played by Stephen Dillane, who is great in almost everything. In the first place, he has the advantage of looking a little like Daniel Day-Lewis, which is a great way for an actor to look. He does a funny Bob Dylan impression in the second act, and he also delivers the “All the world’s a stage” speech like it’s just something he decided to say, as opposed to the “All the world’s a stage” speech. He makes his first appearance by asking a group of musicians to keep singing. They’re pretty tired of singing, and somebody’s voice is hoarse, but Jacques is insistent: “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs,” he says. I identified hard with that line.

Dillane, as Prospero, is also the best reason to go see The Tempest, although he sometimes drops his voice so low that it’s difficult to hear. As the play is set on an explicitly magical island, it also involves more stage tricks, which are gracefully done. The acting is not quite as good, and there are fewer jokes; but if you are interested in monsters with skull-heads, island spirits with scary metallic wings, and reflecting pools, The Tempest is probably what you’ll want to see.

Richard Beck is from Wallingford, Pennsylvania.