Friday, June 29, 2012

Delightful "As You Like It" Echoes Sturges and That 30s Screwball Milieu

When screenwriter/director Preston Sturges made a name for himself with screen comedies in the 30s and 40s, he established a corps of supporting players. Frankin Pangborn, Jimmy Conlin, William Demarest, Esther Howard, Robert Dudley, Eric Blore... They weren't leading actors, but they were vivid and funny, making Sturges' movies really memorable. They also kept the tone light and charming, even when Sturges dipped into darker issues, putting them on chain gangs or standing in line for a soup kitchen.

That's the approach director James Alexander Bond takes with his production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, which is, not coincidentally, set in a 1930s world of society beauties, impetuous swains, local yokels, and a coterie of down-on-their-luck good guys hanging out in the forest away from it all. That means that this "As You Like It" looks and feels a bit like the Preston Sturges version of Shakespeare. Which is, as it turns out, an excellent idea.

In the Sturges vein, Bond has made the background players just as lively as the leads. Yes, leading lady Rosalind, who takes off from court to hide in the woods disguised as a boy, and her love interest, Orlando, another runaway, are the center of the story. Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's most appealing heroines, and Gracyn Mix is lithe and lovely in the role. Mix and Dylan Paul, as Orlando, make a charming pair of lovers, showing lots of  romantic chemistry and painting engaging characters individually.

Mix is tall enough to make her stint in boys' clothes at least as masculine as, say, Justin Bieber, and Paul nicely charts Orlando's course, so that we can always tell what he knows and when he knows it, who he loves and when he loves her.

But, just like in the best Sturges' pics, this pair of lovers are buoyed by the crazy character actors around them, from Henson Keys' double roles as old faithful Adam, Orlando's servant, and a down-home hick in rolled-up overalls, to Alexander Pawlowsky, funny as both a puffed-up champion wrestler (he sports an impressive mustache and a circus strong man look) and a very dim country bumpkin, Charlie Wright as a lovestruck shepherd, Lisa Wartenberg as the peevish object of his affections, Molly Rose Lewis as a lusty rustic, Zack Powell going all Truman Capote as a courtier named LeBeau and then turning up as a Hymen (the god of marriage) seemingly beamed down from the Starship Enterprise, and Nick Demeris, managing to make Touchstone, the one George Bernard Shaw called Shakespeare's most tiresome clown, somehow not tiresome at all. Each character is tart and sharp, adding energy and comedy.

The contributions of a band of wandering musicians are also welcome, with Andy Talen leading the way with vocals and guitar, bringing a little bit of bluegrass into Arden. And the hoe-down dances performed during the evening work quite well, too.

Jacques, the one who has the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech, is usually portrayed as a brooding, melancholy misanthrope amidst the romantic comedy. But here, Daver Morrison creates a completely unique Jacques, one who has a sort of Grand Thespian way of speaking, as if he were a one-time actor turned away from the stage, still harkening to his former days in the spotlight, but decidedly more down at the heels. It's quite a fascinating Jacques, making his take on "All the world's a stage" that much richer.

Rachel Laritz's costumes are properly pretty for the time the ladies spend in court, and effectively countrified when they move into Arden, which seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of the Ozarks in this production. John Stark's scenic design, with trees that change from an apple orchard to a forest, adds a cheerful background to the proceedings and lights up nicely when it's time for that Star Trek invasion. (I know it seems strange that there would be a visit from a starship there at the end, but Shakespeare's text does include a curious visit from other-worldly Hymen to bless the marriages being performed, so... A "Star Trek" approach works about as well as any.)

Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in "Sullivan's Travels"
If you are not aware of Preston Sturges, if "Sullivan's Travels" has never been on your viewing list, you may think this "As You Like It" is more reminiscent of Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night" or Gregory LaCava's "My Man Godfrey" or even Fred and Ginger running off to Brightbourne in "The Gay Divorcee." It doesn't hurt that whenever a plane passes over, we get a few bars of "Flying Down to Rio" as sung by Mr. Astaire to fill the time. Whatever film from the 30s it brings to mind -- or even if you're channeling the Coen brothers' "O Brother Where Art Thou," itself a nod to Preston Sturges -- it all works. It's all in good fun, all romantic and sweet and pretty darn delightful.

By William Shakespeare

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
at Ewing Manor

Director: James Alexander Bond
Costume Designer: Rachel Laritz
Scenic Designer: John Stark
Lighting Designer: Julie Mack
Sound Designer/Composer: Michael Rasbury
Stage Manager: Jayson T. Waddell
Voice/Text Coach: Kevin Rich
Fight Director/Choreographer: Alex Miller
Dance Choreographer: Greg Merriman

Cast: Dylan Paul, Henson Keys, David Price, Andrew Rogalny, Jr, Alexander Pawlowski IV, Amanda Catania, Gracyn Mix, Nick Demeris, Zack Powell, Matt Penn, Charlie Wright, Kate McDermott, Trevon Jackson, Andy Talen, Devon Nimerfroh, Michael Gamache, David Sitler, Daver Morrison, Molly Rose Lewis and Lisa Wartenberg.

Remaining performances: July 1, 6, 8, 12, 14, 20, 27 and August 1, 5, 7, 11

For ticket information, click here.


  1. This sounds terrific. I wish I could see it. I'll actually be in Illinois from July 18 to 21, but not conveniently located for this.

    "As You Like It" has been done in so many different settings, hasn't it? Aside from your basic fairy-tale standard look, I've seen a Teddy Roosevelt manly-scouting-outdoors sort of concept, there were several flower-child versions in the 70s, the Old Vic did a Watteau sort of production in the 1940s (Edith Evans and Michael Redgrave) which seems to have remained unforgettable for those who saw it. And then there was the Kenneth Branagh movie, showing us an English settlement in 19th-century Japan.

  2. I need to see that Branagh movie! Teddy Roosevelt influence I've seen on Two Gents from Verona. And I'd seen a 1930s AYLI before, but this one was cheerier and less depressed during the Depression. That one was very rural Illinois/Hooverville/gangsters as I recall, and this one was much more heiress on the run meets boy from a good family while everybody is pretending to be something they're not, which fits half the screwball comedies of the 30s. They could be Claudette Colbert from It Happened One Night and Ray Milland from Easy Living.

  3. In a total coincidence, there is a Preston Sturges marathon on Turner Classic Movies tonight. They're showing Sullivan's Travels at 7 Central, then Christmas in July, The Great McGinty, The Lady Eve, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Palm Beach Story, in that order. That means it will finish up at about 5 am. What a good excuse to pull an all-nighter! (And JAC, Eric Blore is in Sullivan's Travels and, of course, The Lady Eve, if you need an Eric Blore fix. I always need an Eric Blore fix.)|0/Directed-By-Preston-Sturges-6-30.html

  4. Cool! I've caught up with some of those fairly recently: Christmas in July (for the first time) on TCM last spring, Sullivan's Travels (also for the first time) on rental around the same time, I've seen and loved The Lady Eve many times, and I own the DVD of The Palm Beach Story (and Unfaithfully Yours -- I adore both of those). I've still never seen The Great McGinty and Hail the Conquering Hero.

    Eric Blore does keep popping up. With Fred & Ginger of course, and I happened to hear him last week, providing the voice of Mr. Toad for the Disney version of The Wind in the Willows.