Muddy toes and picnics -- it must be the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis. All the customary high-quality pre-show entertainment is in place: a cleverly written and energetically performed green show (a.k.a. a "lickety-split" twenty-minute version of the feature play), a fire juggler, strolling musicians -- and for the first time: mud wrestling! (Well, not officially.) This year's edition of the big-budget, free-to-the-public festival features As You Like It, a romantic comedy heavier on romance than laughs. Director Risa Brainin captains a boatload of talented designers and actors, steering them to a gently realistic drama that champions love and natural order. If the play's truly the thing you're coming to see, get there early and sit down front so you don't miss out on the subtle facial expressions that can't be seen from further back. And don't expect much humor for a while -- the play begins in a dark place and takes its time finding the light.
In the initially bleak world of As You Like It, brother has turned against brother: Oliver is bent on destroying his younger brother Orlando, copying the royal behavior of Duke Frederick, who has sent his older brother to exile (excellent double-Duke work by Jerry Vogel). Christopher Pickart's set depicts a court where something's definitely rotten -- cracks and water stains appear on a cement-gray semicircle that looks more like a prison than a castle. Devon Painter's black-and-white costumes emphasize the oppressive atmosphere of Frederick's reign, with tightly cinched black leather belts and hip boots on nearly everyone and a black fetish harness on the Duke's wrestler. Michael Klaers' institutional lighting adds to the chilly mood. When royal cousins Celia and Rosalind enter the court scene, they make a small gesture of resistance, removing their black-strapped sandals to walk momentarily barefoot. This moment shows Brainin's careful attention to appropriate realistic details -- which, unfortunately, doesn't always play past the front-row blanket section.
The setting shifts when Rosalind and Celia escape to the Forest of Arden. A crack in the wall opens to reveal a refreshing pastoral setting. After the almost unbearably monochrome earlier scenes, the color is breathtaking. The theatrical presentation of the beautifully lighted green trees and the sparkling flowing water garners applause, as much for the shift in mood as the scenic magic.
As color begins to seep into the characters' costumes, love begins to bloom. The romance of Orlando and Rosalind is the heart of the play, and it beats strongly. They became infatuated with each other during a wrestling match at the Duke's castle (where a shirtless Orlando caused flutters in many an audience heart as well). Classic comic conflict ensues when Rosalind, in disguise as the boy Ganymede, convinces Orlando to practice his "love-talk" with her. Rashaad Ernesto Green plays Orlando's wide-eyed naiveté believably and has great chemistry with Julie Evan Smith as Rosalind. Smith's energy is infectious, and her scenes with Green and Caroline Bootie as Celia are the highlight of the production.
One of the biggest challenges in an outdoor setting and with Shakespeare (in any setting) is vocal clarity. Voice and text coach Louis Colaianni deserves congratulations -- this cast has crystal-clear articulation. The harmonious blend of voices makes composer Brad Carroll's songs delightful to the ear, but his eclectic mix of musical styles is jarring, as is the highly synthesized scene-change music (out of place in the natural setting of Arden). Sure, it's funny when the Duke's men burst into a rap song, but the inconsistency of style feels like a desperate attempt to break out of the earnest realism that has bogged down the comedy.
Starting off in such a dark, foreboding atmosphere casts a long, cold shadow over the rest of the play. While patches of warmth and humor pierce the darkness whenever Rosalind, Celia or Orlando is onstage, the rest of the players stay strangely dim until the final wedding scene, when the music and dance come together in a delightful fairy-tale happy ending and a humorous curtain call. Perhaps as the mud dries and the audience walks on more solid ground, the cast will become more surefooted and find a more equitable balance of realism, comedy and romance.