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Let The Sunshine In (Briefly)

August 15, 2011

Greg Hicks in The Winter's Tale Photo: Stephanie Berger

The clouds parted if only momentarily on a rainy Sunday for the final day of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s residency at the Park Avenue Armory in New York as part of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival. While the actual rain kept falling, the artistic sunshine I’m talking about finally came through with the last performance of The Winter’s Tale, easily the highlight of the entire festival. Of course, the ensemble cast was the same as it had been for all the other plays in the festival, and the director, David Farr, was the same person responsible for the rather turgid King Lear in repertory. But The Winter’s Tale succeeded where the other failed due in part to an element of fantasy. Shakespeare’s Bohemia and Sicilia are so far removed from anything historical, that there is little reason to feel indebted to any time period in particular and the need to acknowledge or ignore a set of imagery allows for an opening up. Which Farr did, by creating a very late Victorian look to each of the two kingdoms. He also allowed for some fantasy elements in the scenery as well including a stage littered with papers from dramatically collapsed bookshelves and a giant bear composed of sheets of paper and lights for eyes. All of this was not only interesting to look at, but set the stage for Shakespeare’s own magical ending where a statue coming to life is readily accepted and digested by all parties present.

Michael Boyd takes a bow with cast and crew of the RSC after As You Like It Photo: mine

The visual motif of Leontes’ collapsed library, which did so right before the audiences eyes as his mistaken cruelty becomes apparent to him, provides wonderful contrast to the later scenes in Bohemia. Preserving the physical books and pages as backdrop, the set is transformed by the colorfully imagined rustic costumes in the more overtly comic sections of the script. These scenes were more full of giddiness and joy that anything RSC offered all weekend including the entirety of As You Like It. The show again featured some of the RSC festival’s biggest MVPs including Noma Dumezweni as Paulina and a heartbreaking Kelly Hunter as Hermoine. The sound of sobbing in the audience for a happy ending as The Winter’s Tale came to a close was overwhelming and it was exciting to see this excellent company of actors and crew hit one right out of the ballpark with a production that lived up to their talents.

The cast of As You Like It Photo: Stephanie Berger

After this, I’d had high hopes at that point that the tide for the weekend had turned going into the final performance of the entire RSC residency. But As You Like It managed to bog down in one of the most strangely unfunny stagings of one of Shakespeare’s outright comedies I can recall seeing. Directed by RSC’s own Artistic Director Michael Boyd, who greeted the audience with warm thanks at the end of the show, the first half of the play is set in what appears to be an abandoned and empty Crate and Barrel. A blank white wall and stage are later pulled aside to reveal some greenery to suggest a forest, but this is bare bones stuff. And despite some wonderful performances again from actors clearly with smart comic impulses, the overly serious and frequently dour staging made the “problematic” Winter’s Tale look like a Marx Brother movie in comparison. I was happy to see Jonjo O’Neill excel here as he had as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. His Orlando De Boys became the centerpiece of the play that was uncertain what to do with Rosalind and Celia throughout. Richard Katz gave a memorable turn as Touchstone as well, so it wasn’t all bad news.

But as the confetti reigned down and Michael Boyd thanked the many dignitaries involved in this Herculean venture, I kept wondering from an audience perspective if it was worth it. The idea of bringing a facsimile of the RSC in their home environment to New York was an exciting idea. But as theater in its own right, this was mighty boring, especially considering the plethora of frequently fine summer Shakespeare experiences available around the country from the Public Theater’s Central Park offerings to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And while I believe the RSC has something unique to offer when it comes to Shakespeare, the Park Avenue Armory residency rarely got to the point of showing what that was.



I'm in agreement. I've almost always found the RSC boring. They're the Shakespeare mausoleum.
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